Sunday, 21 August 2016

Luke 14.1, 7-14 (NRSV)

Humility and Hospitality
1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. …
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

My text this morning is written in Luke 14:11:
11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Let us first provide some context for our Gospel reading: We are taken to a time when Jesus visited the home of a Pharisee and this echoes a similar event as recorded in 7:36-50. Eating together was awkward in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day because their oral traditions were full of rules and regulations and indeed restrictions about how one ought to eat, when one ought to eat and what was permissible to eat. They also contained rules about with whom one could eat! Jesus’ earlier meal had erupted into a serious conflict because Jesus had allowed a sinful woman to anoint his feet. This meal was even more fraught with difficulties as it took place on the Sabbath. We can almost expect what will happen, because a man in terrible need comes to Jesus – suffering from dropsy – and true to form, Jesus cannot leave a person in need like this and so he heals him and sends the man away. He knows what the people are thinking and so he gives an explanation about how the law caters for dealing with animals in distress on the Sabbath which exposes the folly of their legalistic objections and verse 6 concludes: “And they could not reply to this.”
This episode revealed something else as well. Some of the people were forcing their way to important places at the meal. Jesus gives them sound practical advice that it avoids embarrassment when one rather assumes a lowly place and waits to be invited to a more important position. But there is an important spiritual parallel which Jesus makes clear in verse 11: “11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Some of the Pharisees were assuming that they had special places in the presence of God because of their legalistic observances and their rigid adherence to the letter of the Law. They believed they were better than others because they followed their ways – obviously not God’s ways – which Jesus was showing them - very strictly. A commentator writes:
Jesus recommends a different agenda: Seek to become a friend of God and trust God to properly honour God’s friends.”
This leads Jesus into his second parable which has as the theme: If you want to be ‘friends with God, extend hospitality to the marginalised. In the ancient world, reciprocity was strictly followed whereby one only extended hospitality to those who were able to return the hospitality. Jesus rejects this norm and gives a different imperative and demands rather that his followers give hospitality to those who cannot repay it – as he makes clear in verses 12 and 13. John Wesley inquires:
“… is it not implied herein, that we should be sparing in entertaining those that need it not, in order to assist those that do need, with all that is saved from those needless entertainments?”
We see therefore that the two parables in our reading are part of Jesus’ ongoing dialogue with the religious leaders of his day. One of the issues Jesus dealt with in our previous lesson is the way in which the Pharisees would happily enter into sophisticated intellectual debate, at the expense of dealing with the real, practical need of a person experiencing some distress. Jesus then made the vital point that ‘… the law of mercy may take precedence over the Sabbath law …’

Where our reading begins, Jesus is also talking about precedence, but in a different way, and deals with positions of importance at table. Caird writes: “As in social etiquette, so in the spiritual realm, recognition eludes those who demand it and accrues to those who think more highly of others than of themselves.”

If a distinguished person arrived early at a feast and took pride of place and if a more distinguished person arrived later and the first guest had to be told to move, this would be embarrassing. However, if the first person chose a more lowly position, he would be honoured to be invited to a more distinguished place ‘… his humility will have gained him all the more honour …’

Humility is always the sign of truly great people. Thomas Hardy is believed to have submitted some of his most brilliant poetry under a pseudonym together with a stamped self-addressed envelope, never assuming that he had any right to have his work published. I will always remember my experiences of Dom Henry Wansborough – translator of the New Jerusalem Bible into English - but working with me just as ‘Father Henry’ for months, until I found out by accident that he was Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford!

Barclay suggests that we can retain our humility in a number of ways. Firstly, we can do this by remembering the facts. However much we know, we still know little compared with the sum total of knowledge. However much we have achieved, we have still achieved very little in the end. However important we may feel we have become, this is not permanent, and life will continue well enough without us. Secondly, we can do this by comparing ourselves with perfection. “It is when we see or hear the expert that we realise how poor our own performance is.” As I get older, I realise more and more that there are others who are far better teachers and preachers than I am. Thirdly, when we compare the way we live our lives with the life of Jesus ‘… pride will die and self-satisfaction will be shrivelled up.”

At a conference I attended in Oxford one Easter, I was privileged to hear Professors Keith Ward and Richard Pring, probably two of the best academics in their fields: Ward in theology and philosophy and Pring in Education. Their lectures were enthralling and filled with insight and sparked off a number of important questions. I felt reluctant to ask any, realising that I was an insignificant teacher in the presence of giants. But all questions, including mine (when I eventually plucked up the courage to ask them) were given such dignity and weight – in all sincerity – that I was made to feel greatly affirmed and blessed in the process. Caird gives an apt description that applies so obviously to people like Ward and Pring: “True dignity, and true honour, whether conferred by man or God, is always unexpected.”

I remember when I was a Chaplain in Oxford – where I was teaching the sons and daughters of the ‘great and the good’ - where, in addition to having to work out for myself that the Jeremy Irons in front of me was the actor, I only discovered after I left, that some of the people I met there were of the greatest scholars in their fields. In contrast I will never forget the one year 08 parent asking me: “Mr Owen, what is your view on the Graff-Wellhousen Hypothesis on the authorship of the Pentateuch?” clearly trying to show me how clever he was, because it had nothing to do with anything that his son was being taught. His whole demeanour was one of arrogance and he continued, probing with other questions, testing my knowledge. I was not impressed at all.

Jesus teaches here that true humility is what matters, as this enables a person to grow and develop as a person. The Pharisees were very good at the appearance of humility. Humility is often abused by people who want to appear to be humble in order to gain something for themselves. But humility should not be difficult at all. Whatever we think we know we should realise that in comparison with the sum total of knowledge, we know very little; however much we have achieved, it is very little in the general scheme of things.

Christian humility comes from comparing ourselves with Jesus, realising our own imperfection, understanding and limitations. We need to acknowledge that our gifts and strengths come from God, and we need to use them as Christ directs us. ‘Humility is not self-degradation; it is a realistic assessment and commitment to serve.’

The Pharisees were missing out on a great deal through their self-importance. There was so much more that they could have achieved as human beings.

In the second parable, Jesus touches a nerve. We all like to spend time with good, special, accomplished people. While it is natural that people like to spend time with those who are like them and ‘better’ than them and agree with them, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had (as Caird explains) ‘… elevated this tendency into a spiritual principle, refusing all social contact with those who did not share their standards of piety …’ Jesus points out that to do this is to miss the heavenly blessedness that comes to those who show hospitality and kindness where there is no possibility of recompense. It would appear that Jesus is challenging the Pharisees to become ‘disinterested’.

Disinterested is an interesting word. In today’s world it is all too easy to confuse it with uninterested or not interested. In fact it means impartiality or lack of interest in the sense that one does not wish or even hope to gain from something. As the Concise Oxford Dictionary explains: “… not influenced by considerations of personal advantage …”

But Caird adds: “It may seem strange that Jesus should have spoken of reward for disinterested goodness, for one cannot be unselfish with an eye to heavenly gain; yet the reward is real.”

The loving service of the helpless and those in need, which Jesus did so well, is the essence of what life ought to be like in the Kingdom of God, and – as Caird concludes “… such a life will enjoy the perfection of it in heaven …”

Jesus makes the point clearly. His hosts had invited all the important people – or people from whom they could receive some benefit. Jesus turned their philosophy on its head stating that they should rather invite those who can never return the compliment. Jesus is saying that it is in service of others that one achieves fulfilment.

This parable speaks to all generations. It forces us to ask a number of important questions about why we give to others or why we are generous. Some of us give out of a sense of duty – because we feel that we have to.  Others give because they hope to receive in return. These people see their giving as a form of investment. It is possible to give to others in order to make us feel superior. In this case, it is better rather not to give at all, because a patronising attitude is most hurtful.

The best sort of giving is when the person doing the giving does not know who they are giving to and the person receiving does not know who the giver was. It is even better when a person gives because they cannot help it. William Barclay concludes:

The law of the kingdom is this – that if a man gives to gain reward he will receive no reward; but if a man gives with no thought of reward his reward is certain. The only real giving is that which is the uncontrollable outflow of love.

As Jesus said:
11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Amen.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Luke 13.10-17 (NRSV)

Luke 13.10-17 (NRSV)
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.’ 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

For the Jewish leaders, healing people from their pain was not a ministry to be exercised on the holy day. Jesus points out the folly of their ways - the hypocrisy that states that one can help animals while ignoring the needs of people. The Jewish leaders in their pettiness even argued about what types on knots could or could not be tied on the Sabbath. As McBride explains, Jesus ...

... has no time for a theology of knots which can justify the release of an animal, and keep a women bound in her affliction. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath who releases those who are bound.

Tinsley reminds us that the healing of the crippled woman should have made it clear to the religious leaders who Jesus really was, i.e. the one who is Lord of the Sabbath and the one who has mastery over the power of evil in the world. But all they saw was a man who was breaking the Sabbath, and although they would not admit it, was in a way that they too were willing to do so, if one of their valuable animals needed to be set free!

The only way these religious leaders would have been happy for the Sabbath to be broken was if a person’s life was in danger. Jesus responds to them saying that what he was doing for the woman was necessary! (dei) using the same word when Luke explains the divine necessity of the Cross (Caird, p. 171 – see Luke 9.22). It is necessary to liberate people out of the clutches of evil and this is a work that must continue seven days a week.

In fact, Caird reminds us that the real significance of the Sabbath was that it was meant to be a ‘… weekly release from the bondage of labour, and a foretaste of the rest awaiting the people of God.’ (p. 171) What Jesus was doing could therefore not have been more appropriate, as Caird adds:‘... to liberate men and women from the reign of Satan and to bring them under the gracious reign of God was therefore to fulfil the purpose of the Sabbath, not profane it’. (p. 171)

The opponent of Jesus was one of the rulers of the Synagogue. In contrast with the Scribes and the Pharisees, this person did not even respond to Jesus personally, but addressed the crowd. But when Jesus pointed out his hypocrisy, the crowd saw the legitimacy of what Jesus was saying and sided with him instead ‘... and they rejoiced in the glorious things done by Jesus’. (La Verdiere, p. 183)

Tom Wright suggests that the women probably had a ‘spirit of weakness’ meaning that there was no medical explanation why she became bent over, and that her ailment might well have been psychological. None of this really matters, though, because what does matter is the fact that she was suffering – and that this had lasted for a very long time – and now Jesus liberated her.

We need to beware of any form of strait-jacket that brings us into bondage. It is so easy for us to become legalistic like the Scribes, Pharisees and other religious leaders. This is a malady of fundamentalism; it loses the flexibility and pragmatism needed if we are to be enabled to love others with the love of Christ.

The right thing to do is the most loving thing to do. There is general agreement between Christian ethicists, but this does not mean that there is no debate. The best known modern exponent is Joseph Fletcher and his famous work entitled Situation Ethics, which he claimed was in line with the teaching, practice and example of Jesus. His theory was brilliant where he stated that one always goes into any situation with the position of one’s tradition intact, and only set aside the commonly agreed rules or laws, if the purposes of love are better served by doing this. So a Roman Catholic follower of Fletcher, would remain faithful to all their teachings, they would only change if a situation arose where love would be better served if one did not. An obvious case would be an abortion for a disabled girl who had been raped and was now pregnant. Fletcher claimed to pilot a middle road between antinomianism which abandons all laws (and which is popular today because it is at the heart of relativism, where the situation dictates what is right or wrong) and legalism on the other hand, where rules are so rigidly applied that there is no room for manoeuvre. Fletcher suggested that one should not think about rigid laws or rules, but see them rather as maxims or guiding principles. In reality, Fletcher moved to a much more antinomian relativist position, and his ideas fell out of favour – and rightly so - but other scholars like Paul Ramsey especially, and JAT Robinson, I believe are right where they claim that love is the ultimate command that should be at the heart of all our dealings with others, especially those in predicaments, whatever they may be. This is following the way set by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

As D G Miller reminds us:

What could be more wholesome in a synagogue on the Sabbath, than that the works of Satan should be destroyed and that men should life their hearts in praise for God for this. (p. 114)

The Sabbath is God’s special day and so is the most appropriate for doing his work. Miller continues:

A change of mind about the meaning of the Law was necessary before the Pharisees could enter the Kingdom. (ibid)

And for this to happen, repentance was needed and so Jesus continues with two parables to make this point.

In the Kingdom of God people matter before things, and the Law or rules are also ‘things’. We are under grace and not law and our lives should be lived in this way; Christians ought to have a reputation for being gracious people.

Rules and laws must, needs be, always be there as the basic minimum, the lowest possible standard. If all one can say that one has never broken a rule, then one will probably not have lived a loving life. Jesus made this clear when he spoke of Christians not only not committing adultery – the law – but going further and not even thinking about it; never murdering – the law – but never allowing hurtful and hateful thoughts to be part of our lives.

God treats us much better than we deserve, and so ought we who are called to be imitators of God in Jesus Christ. We should always be ready to treat others better than they deserve.

So often one hears – even in churches – that people are being petty and insisting on their way, and they appeal to the ‘rules’ to support their position. Barclay suggests that ‘… there is more trouble and strife in churches over legalistic details of procedure than over every other thing.’ (p. 178)

In the Jewish Law, it was perfectly ‘legal’ to help a person on the Sabbath if their life was in danger; the misery of the woman’s suffering for 18 years meant that her real life – the life that Jesus came to offer to all – was in danger. Barclay concludes:

Often good things are delayed because some regulation has not been satisfied – or because of some technical detail. No helpful deed that we can do today should be postponed until tomorrow. (p. 178)

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Luke 12.49-59 NRSV

Jesus the Cause of Division
49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:
father against son
   and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
Interpreting the Time
54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Settling with Your Opponent
57 ‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case,* or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.’
This lesson, like the incident of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple, is one of those awkward passages that many people deal with in a variety of unsatisfactory ways. Some say that it is so uncharacteristic of the behaviour and message of Jesus and that it must be a mistake. Others decide that they do not understand this so they just ignore it and move on and just read further. But we have learnt that one often needs to ponder, even struggle with what we read, and out of that process we always receive rich and wonderful blessing from God's word. We need to remember that through the Scriptures, God speaks to his people. But in this process, the people have to listen. Those of you who are parents will identify with an experience I often had as a teacher, where I would speak and some children would physically hear what I said but would not listen. We too can often hear the word of God physically, but not be listening for what he is saying to us.

Eugene Peterson explains what he thinks God requires of his people in this way:

            ... apart from the act of listening and responding, [words] ... cannot function according to the intent of the speaker. For language in its origin and at its best is the means by which one person draws another person into a participating relationship. ... The intent of revelation [in Scripture] is not to tell us about God but to involve us in God.[1]

One of the reasons why Jesus was always challenging the Scribes and the Pharisees was that '... they knew the words of scripture well but heard the voice of God not at all'.[2]

When we use the Scriptures as our means by which we listen to God, and not just a book that we use for whatever other reason, then we often have to stop and think, sometimes even struggle until we find what God is saying to us.

All this reminds us that words do not often mean what they might appear to mean on the surface, and before we jump to conclusions, we need to stop, listen clearly to the words and think. But all too often this does not happen. The rule is rather that people hear words, don't really even listen to make sure that they understand, decide for themselves what they mean and then react. Few people ever bother to find out what the truth is and what the words mean - they just react.

Jesus' audience had this problem. Few people took the time to listen to each other, let alone listen to God. People make up their minds for themselves without really listening and so strife and conflict is the order of the day. Often in a situation of conflict, the one party is formulating what their response is going to be and is therefore only hearing with a fraction of their concentration what the other person has to say. No wonder the divorce rate is so high, no wonder conflict and violence ravishes our land. Often throughout his ministry, Jesus was on the receiving end of such treatment. In John 7:12 we are told:

            There was much whispering about him in the crowd. "He is a good man," some people said. "No," others said, "he is misleading the people." But no one talked about him openly ... (TEV)

No one talked about Jesus openly. People love to spread rumours about people, but few will take the time and trouble to find out the truth. Few will actually take the time to listen and think and ask and receive more information before they do anything. The result - conflict, division, hatred, violence.

In our study of Luke's Gospel, we have seen that one cannot be neutral with Jesus. He warned that we are either for him or we are against him. When a person belongs to Christ division often results because Christ's standards are in conflict with those of the world. The world loves sin. Christians have to stand out against sin and because of their opposition to sin they are persecuted. This was Jesus' experience and he knew that it would be the experience of all those who were faithful to him. This was nothing new. Life is never fair and never will be fair because sin reigns. So how do we deal with this? Jesus had earlier told the people that what ultimately matters is hearing and doing God's word.[3] Remember Luke 8:21 where Jesus said:

            "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." (NRSV)

And again in Luke 11:27-28:

            While he was saying this, a women in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" (NRSV)

The fire Jesus speaks about in verse 49 refers to judgement and testing. There is no doubt that our Lord's coming brought with it judgement. John the Baptist had prophesied that Jesus would baptise with fire. It never occurred to anyone that Jesus would be the first one to pass through the fire of judgement. Jesus goes through the fire beginning with the opposition he faces to his beliefs and values and finally culminates in his death on the cross.

Jesus did not relish the prospect of his suffering nor the suffering his disciples would have to go through. As one commentator writes:

            We glimpse here something of the strain and anguish of soul which our Lord was suffering at this time.[4]

The literature of the intertestamental period is full of predictions that the Messiah would have to suffer terribly before the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Jesus knew that he was the one to experience these terrible things, and in his humanity longed for it all to be over. Verses 49-50 read:

            I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed. (NRSV)

The divisions and conflicts, even among families were and are an evil which would precede the coming of the end of this age and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Many years before, the prophet Micah had written:

            ... the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household. But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.[5]

Jesus is not happy about this, but the fact of the matter is that division happens. Jesus does not cause it - the sin of people causes it. There is division because of Jesus only because people do not want to give up their sin. In these situations people should be patient - they should wait, they should pray and they should listen.

Jesus elaborates by using two parables.

In the first, Jesus calls for discernment. The people Jesus was speaking to, were largely of farming stock. They would have known how to read the signs of the weather. The people were full of knowledge, but had no wisdom. The people, under the guidance of their religious leaders should have been able to see that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. Everything that had been prophesied about the Messiah was completely and utterly fulfilled in Jesus.

When people can see the coming of a storm they can make preparation for it. When people know that any natural disaster is coming, they do what they can to save themselves. The Scriptures speak clearly of the coming judgement of Christ being preceded by dissension and anguish - all the things that are happening in the world today. But with all the knowledge, there are few who take heed of the spiritual wisdom that is in the word of God. There are many who might make a passing reference to Scripture, but there are few who really take the time to listen closely, to hear and to put into practice what it is saying. As a commentator writes:

            The storm of God's wrath is coming, and the judge is already standing before the door.[6]

As James adds:

            Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors![7]

When the second coming of Jesus will take place is not the issue. The issue is that he is going to come and all the signs prophesied have been fulfilled, just as they had been before Jesus went to the cross. So it could even be today.

Jesus illustrates this point further in his last parable. If a person was guilty before the law, they would do everything in their power to settle out of court, but the sadness is that few people do anything to stay out of hell. Before God, there is not a single human being who has a good case. So, '... if he is wise, he will make his peace with God while there is still time'.[8]

The reality of God's judgement comes when we least expect it - like a thief in the night. The reality of the judgement does not wait until Jesus comes again - it becomes real for us at the moment of death. There is no chance after death to make our peace with God. Are we all ready? How do we know?

Paul tells us that we have peace with God through our faith in Jesus Christ.[9] But how do we know that we have this faith. Listen carefully to the word of God:

            Is'nt is obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are "works of faith"? The full meaning of "believe" in the Scripture sentence, "Abraham believed God and was set right with God," includes his action. ... Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works.[10]

            Don't fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear![11]

            Agree with each other, love each other, be deep spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.[12]

            God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we're free of worry on Judgement Day - our standing in the world is identical with Christ's ... If a person boasts, "I love God," and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won't love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can't see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You've got to love both.[13]

Where do we stand? Are we at peace with God? Is it clear for all to see that we are at peace with God because we are filled with the fruits of His Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self control? Are we really those who really listen to his word and act in obedience to what it says?

[1].           Peterson, Reversed Thunder, p. 13.
[2].           Peterson, p. 13.
[3].           La  Verdiere, p. 178.
[4].           Wilkinson, p. 84.
[5].           Micah 7.
[6].           Wiersbe, p. 147.
[7].           James 5:9, NRSV.
[8].           Barclay, p. 171.
[9].           Romans 5:1.
[10].          James 2 in Peterson, The Message, p. 482.
[11].          James 1, in Peterson, The Message, p. 480.
[12].          Philippians 2 in Peterson, The Message, p. 414.
[13].          1 John 4 in Peterson, The Message, pp. 506-507.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Luke 12.32-40 (NRSV)

Luke 12.32-40 (NRSV)

32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Watchful Slaves

35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

In this passage Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid – because it is our father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

What makes us worry and afraid? For many of us, wealth is at the heart of things, either because there is too much and we lose sight of the kingdom, or too little and we become obsessed with merely surviving. As G B Caird put it: insecurity ‘... when it is a constant companion, can engross the attention and sap the resolve ...’ Jesus makes the point that to worry is absurd because God will provide us with what we need; if he takes care of the birds and the flowers, how much more will he take care of us his children. There is also the sense that it is pointless to worry, because it changes nothing. The cure for worry is to gain the right perspective – to put first things first. When one does this, something important happens – we learn to focus on what really matters and what we really need, as Caird states: ‘... the necessities of life are fewer and simpler than selfishness supposes ...’

There is a reminder here of the injunction we have to possess our possessions and not to allow them to possess us – to make sure that the Kingdom of God is what matters – and so what we own needs to be seen as providing for a need and not necessarily for a want.

John Wesley challenges Methodists to: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” In the days before rampant inflation, he spent 28 out of 30 pounds when he was at Oxford and continued to spend 28 pounds even though his earnings grew vastly – but he gave the rest away.

I cannot help thinking how hollow this might sound to those who are starving and in real and crippling poverty where the struggle for the next mouthful of food consumes one’s whole life. But then, if everyone gave generously, who lived as though the Kingdom of God was a present reality, there ought not to be any poverty! This is a real challenge. Are we holding back the progress of the Kingdom in this simple and yet very practical way.

If one were to summarise what we learn in the rest of this lesson in the fewest words possible one could say that Jesus is warning people to be prepared.

The disciples were warned to be prepared for what was going to happen to their Lord. Jesus makes reference here to his own death which would be a searching test for his disciples. He warned his followers that a time of testing would be coming their way and might come upon them at a time unknown - so they had to make sure that they were prepared for this and stresses this need for vigilance in verse 35:

          Be ready for whatever comes, dressed for action ... (TEV)

And we all know the truth of this. Life is such that unless we remain prepared, we can be taken by surprise and can be beaten and battered about. So we must all be and remain prepared.

All people are going to stand before God and will be called upon to give account of their lives, not as in front of a harsh judge, but a merciful loving Father. None of us knows when this will happen to us. We have been reminded here of how quickly riches can become poverty. So too is it a fact that we can very quickly move from excellent health to suffering and even death. When the Son of Man comes becomes real for every person at the moment of death.

It is also ridiculous to think that life without God on earth is better than life with God. People have mentioned how they think it is so unfair that some people can come to God in the eleventh hour of their lives. All I can say to the person who waits that long that it is a pity that they missed out on so much. Life with God on earth is life in all its fullness. Life without God but with materialism, greed, drunkenness, debauchery and all other fleshly lusts is life in all its emptiness. Life with God is life with meaning even in the midst of the most horrendous trials and sufferings. Life with Christ is a life with hope, no matter what happens. Even death has no sting for the Christian. Life without Christ can be filled with hopelessness and fear, especially of death. The longer people wait, the longer people miss out on what life really should be like – life in all its fullness!`

Barclay suggests that there are some things that our Lord expects us to be doing when he comes. We need to be found 'waiting and watching'. We need to take each day and grab every opportunity as if it were out last day on earth. We tend to throw countless wonderful blessings away simply because we do not seize the opportunities that come our way. When Jesus comes and he finds us being faithful - he will bless us like the master returning from the wedding to serve his faithful workers. What does this mean? Barclay makes the following suggestions:

1.    We should be found having completed those jobs that can be completed; doing the best we can. Christians should be those who live in this world as temporary sojourners, because we belong to the Kingdom. Christian workers should be so different, because they do everything to the best of their ability and can always be relied upon – echoes here of St Paul who says ‘... whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we should to is as for the Lord ...’
2.    We should be at peace with others – as far as this is possible. We live by different standards, and Jesus reminds us elsewhere that by being what we are is going to cause offense – even when we do not mean to do so. But have we done what we can, even if our efforts are sometimes rejected?
3.    Are we at peace with God? I love the way Barclay expresses himself here ... asking ‘... whether we are doing out as a stranger or an enemy, or going to sleep in the arms of God ...’

We are not all meant to literally sell everything we have. We know this because Jesus allowed Zacchaeus to keep at least half of his wealth. But would we be ready to do so if our Lord called us to? Most of us who read this or who will be in our congregations next Sunday will have far more than we actually need, our lives being filled with much, much more – even materially speaking. But we need the proper perspective. To quote again from Barclay: “Bend all your life to obeying God’s will and rest content with that.”

We need to live each day the best way we can – we need to be ready – not because we are going to face a hard and critical judge, but because we will be found embarrassed and disappointed because we will have let ourselves down in the presence of the one who loves us most. We already have experience of this when we disappoint the people we love and who love us; imagine how it will feel if we let our Lord down. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

Luke 12.13-21 (NRSV)

                                                                              Luke 12.13-21 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Rich Fool
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
My text this morning is written in Luke 12:21:
21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
We live in a world which has got its priorities all wrong. And this is nothing new. People feel that if they have their health and enough money, they will have a wonderful life and all will be okay. This is evident in the fact that people tend to treat wealthy people with greater respect than others. People also tend to allow wealthy people to get away with being rude, brash and unpleasant because they are people who, in the opinion of the world, are special. This is even true of people who have done nothing and have simply inherited their wealth. Jesus, in this week’s Gospel, points out that to hold this view is to be foolish and to make this point tells the parable of the rich fool.

A man came to Jesus for aid in solving a family problem. This was a perfectly natural thing for the people of this day to do. Religious leaders were expected to be proficient in the Law of Moses, which dealt with matters in all areas of life. Jesus refused to act as the mediator in this situation because he knew that no answer that he gave would deal with the real problem. The two brothers were quarrelling about their inheritance because they had covetous hearts. As long as they remained greedy, there would be no settlement. They asked Jesus to serve them and what they needed was for Jesus to save them. Their hearts needed to be changed and the only way any person can be changed is through the power of God through coming to Jesus, and allowing him to fill their lives with his transforming love. Life is not made better or worse depending on what one owns or does not own. Jesus warns in verse 15: “... a person's true life is not made up of the things he owns, no matter how rich he may be.”

True life does not depend on money or possessions. All people have certain basic needs. It is ridiculous to think that we will be any richer if we acquire more and more of these material things. The fact of the matter is that possessions, in no matter what quantity, do very little, if anything to provide us with anything more than a mere existence. Material things do not last forever. We can take none of these things with us when we die. And none of us has any certainty when that will be. There are many people in the world today who will also testify that riches can disappear in a flash. The number of people who lose everything in a frighteningly short time is amazing. One day everything is wonderful materially speaking, the next day, there is nothing!

All too often I still find myself being overly concerned about the material things in life and I too still have much change needed in my life.

If our happiness is determined by the state of our bank balance or what we possess - we are in terrible trouble. What are we going to do if we lose everything - and losing everything can happen to any of us.

In the parable Jesus speaks of a rich fool. Indeed it is foolish to trust in riches. The rich man thought all the possessions belonged to him. Notice how many times in the passage he refers to ‘I’ and 'my' and in verses 16-20. But the point is that if a person is in love with what money can buy, they face the danger of losing the things that money cannot buy.

Many people, lured by riches reject God and his ways - for they are willing to sacrifice their souls through dishonesty and greed - in order to become rich. The Scriptures warn that there are many dangers associated with riches. In 1 Timothy 6:8-10 we read:

            ... if we have food and clothes, that should be enough for us. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and are caught in a trap of many foolish and harmful desires, which pull them down to ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a source of all kinds of evil. Some have been so eager to have it that they have wandered away from the faith and have broken their hearts with many sorrows.

Again in Matthew 13:22, Jesus warns in the parable of the sower:

            The seeds that fell among the thorn bushes stand for those who hear the message; but the worries about this life and the love of riches choke the message, and they don't bear fruit.

People who are self sufficient in material things and money feel that they can do without God and so they turn away from the word of God. But they are in danger - they can lose their souls for the sake of mere things that are temporary.

Jesus states that being truly rich has nothing to do with money or material wealth - but rather in being rich in God's eyes. How do we do this? In Matthew 6:33 Jesus explains:

            ... be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things.

Each person will know what real life is all about when they get their priorities right. The first thing we need to above everything else be concerned with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of us.

Do we possess our possessions or do our possessions possess us? A useful way of telling is by asking ourselves the question? "What would happen if we were told that we were going to lose every material thing we owned?" It is okay to feel sad at the prospect but it really should not matter. The Scriptures provide us with the perspective we need. In Philippians 4:11 Paul writes:

            ... I have learnt to be satisfied with what I have. I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough. I have learnt this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.

Again, 1 Timothy 6: 6ff states:

            ... religion ... make[s] a person very rich, if he is satisfied with what he has. What did we bring into the world? Nothing! What can we take out of the world? Nothing! So then, if we have food and clothes, that should be enough for us. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and are caught in the trap of many foolish and harmful desires, which pull them down to ruin and destruction.

When people have their perspective right, they are liberated from worry. Worrying is one of the most destructive things a person can do. As Corrie Ten Boom writes: “   Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow ... it empties today of its strength.”

It is the concern about material things that makes a person worry. Many, many people (myself included) worry about, finances, health, shelter and all sorts of other temporary things. People worry about making a living and Jesus tells us that we should be more concerned with making a life. The proper perspective is to be more occupied with our souls and minds than with our bodies. Are we doing what God wants us to do? It is when we fix our attention on the things of the world that we worry. When we get the proper perspective and fix our attention on the things of God that we are filled with peace. Paul writing to the Philippians explains (4.6-7):

            Don't worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking him with a thankful heart. And God's peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus.

God looks after birds, flowers and animals. How much more will he look after us who are his children?

We all have to work. The Scriptures are clear in stressing that laziness is never to be tolerated. People should also not be irresponsible in not making adequate provision for the future. The issue here is one of priority. As one commentator puts it: “He does not neglect the worldly duties of his station, but he regards them as of infinitely less importance than the requirements of God.”

The things of the world are important, but they are not as important as the soul. When one has the proper perspective then God gives us all the things we need. Where is our security - is it in Jesus Christ or is it in what we possess? Are we making a living or are you making a life? Are we worried, or do we know God's wonderful provision?

Seek first God's kingdom as your as your first and priority and you will know what it really means to enjoy life and that in all its fullness; if we do not, we miss out on what makes life really worth living – or as Jesus put it:
21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’