Monday, July 1, 2019

Parables in defence of association with sinners

Luke 15:1-32

“The three parables in Luke 15 are told because Jesus was making a habit of having celebration parties with all the ‘wrong’ people, and some others thought it was a nightmare. All three stories are ways of saying: ‘This is why we’re celebrating! Wouldn’t you have a party if it was you? How could we not?’ In and through them all we get a wide open window on what Jesus thought He was doing – and, perhaps, on what we ourselves should be doing.”[1]

The setting of these parables is found in the first three verses. Jesus was being criticized for not only associating with tax collectors and notorious sinners, but for actually eating with them! In the Ancient Near-East, table fellowship was a sign of acceptance and a great honour and while the upper classes might have provided meals for the less privileged, they would never eat with them. Jesus’ action as fellow guest or as host revealed at once the nature of the Kingdom as well as the King. This is a Kingdom founded upon grace and mercy, as the King is gracious and merciful.

Ken Bailey tells us that when Jesus addressed the parables to Pharisees comparing them in the first to shepherds that this would have been a shock to their sensitivities. “Moses was accepted as a shepherd. A Midrash on Exodus records a story of Moses searching out a lost kid and being told by God that he will lead Israel. Kings were referred to by Ezekiel as shepherds (Ez. 34), and God Himself was thought of as a shepherd (Ps. 23). Thus the figure of the shepherd was a noble symbol. By contrast, flesh-and-blood shepherds who in the first century wandered around after sheep were clearly ‘am ha’ ares and unclean. For the Pharisee, a “sinner” was either an immoral person who did not keep the law or a person engaged in one of the proscribed trades, among which was herding sheep.”[2] In other words, in the very first sentence, Jesus was attacking their arrogant attitude and contrasting their pride with His humility.

There are a number of interesting details in this parable, the first being the number of sheep. Only a very affluent person would have owned such a large amount of sheep and, as such, would not have herded the sheep himself but would have hired someone to do so on his behalf…unless the sheep were owned by a large family, clan, or village and were herded by members of that family, clan, or village. This makes sense when later in the parable we are told the shepherd returned home to rejoice with the whole community. The lost sheep was thus portrayed as a community loss.

Another interesting detail is that joy is expressed twice, the first time in the finding of the sheep and the second time in its restoration with the rest of the flock. The act of restoration involved risk and effort…the shepherd had to leave the others to find the one and to bring it back to the fold and we are told that he actually carried it on his shoulders.

The last interesting detail is that while the shepherd left the 99 in the wilderness, they were at home on his return. This indicates that there was more than one shepherd: one who sought out and restored the lost sheep and another (or others) who stayed with the flock and made sure they got home safely.

What Jesus was attempting to point out to His critical audience was there was joy in the restoration of the lost regardless of the risk and burden such an act involved. Those who owned the sheep considered it precious and therefore they rejoiced together in it being found and restored to the flock. In application, Jesus was saying that the lost are precious to the King and it is His desire to have them found and restored, not written off as lost causes.

The parable of the lost coin intensifies the point. The coins owned by a peasant woman were no doubt part of her jewellery or her dowry and thus its loss doubly sad. Not only was money scarce, but also this coin had sentimental value, and thus the loss was greater than the value of the coin.

Again it seems as if Jesus was rejecting the Pharisaic class distinction in His use of a lowly woman as an illustration. And again, there was a communal celebration when the lost was found and restored after the owner made a concerted effort to do so.

But there are two differences between these parables worth noting. The first is the limited area in which the loss took place. This is a house, not a wilderness. The woman knew that the coin could be found if she kept sweeping and searching. The second is the relative value of the item lost. Here we have one in ten, not one in a hundred. To have lost this coin was catastrophic for a peasant woman especially if it was an irreplaceable part of her dowry.

Then the sting in the tail, so to speak, comes in verse 10. “In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” With this one statement Jesus showed that the attitude of heaven was in stark contrast with the attitude of the Pharisees. In other words, division into acceptable and non-acceptable classes (or ethnic groups) ought not to be part of a Christian’s attitude as it does not reflect the person and practice of the King.

And then finally, we come to the parable of the lost son. While the content of this parable is, in many ways, inexhaustible, it is important to note that, as Pryor says: “This great parable, usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, actually is focused on a father who at every point surprises us by his grace.”[3] There are a number of shocking details in this parable, the first being the fact that in asking for his inheritance, the younger son expresses a wish for his father’s death…clearly contrary to the close familial ties and attitudes of Ancient Near-Eastern people! But equally shocking is the unconditional love of the father. Jesus seemed to indicate in verse 20, that this father was watching for his son daily in hope of his return. But not only was his love shown in his watching and waiting and longing, but also in his immediate forgiveness and lavish celebration at the restoration of his son.

However, it is the older son who revealed what most of Jesus’ audience would have been thinking…and this is important as the manner of the older son was equally shocking as it was insulting to the father and demeaning to himself. There was no respectful title in his address and his statement indicated that in his relationship with the father he saw himself as a slave and not as an heir.  

As Bailey says, “The listening Pharisee is pressed to see himself in the older son and to respond by accepting reconciliation.”[4] But, as we well know, they did not respond positively…instead they felt exposed and ridiculed and as a result plotted to kill Jesus…who ironically was the King of the Kingdom they thought was theirs exclusively.

There are many things one can say at this point as far as the making of disciples is concerned. There is the value of the lost from God’s perspective, a value that makes the effort and burden of finding and restoring the lost item more than worth the while. Then there is the attitude of the one searching and restoring the lost item. To them it is not a case of a lost cause…they search and keep searching until the item in safely back where it belongs. But the overarching lesson is the futility in any form of human distinction…the “holy” is no better than the “unholy”…it is the one who makes holy who is better and greater. And He associates with those generally considered lost…the unlovely, the unlikely, the ostracized, and the marginalised.

Surely we ought to do likewise.

[1] Wright, N. T., Luke for Everyone, SPCK, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2004, 183.
[2] Bailey, Kenneth, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parable in Luke (combined edition), Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, 147.
[3] Pryor, Dwight A., Unveiling the Kingdom of Heaven: The Origins and Dimensions of the Kingdom Concept as Taught by the Rabbi Jesus, Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, OH, 2008, 104.
[4] Bailey, 206.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Lesson on how to pray and parable of the bold friend

Lesson on how to pray and parable of the bold friend
Luke 11:1-13

In his commentary, Alexander Balmain Bruce suggested “that the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of Martha and Mary, and the Lesson of Prayer form together a group having their common heading: “at school with Jesus”…”[1] The common lesson in each section has to do with life in the Kingdom…the kind of behaviour characteristic of those who live in submission to the King. Understanding the role of prayer, or the manner in which the believer communes with God, is of vital importance. The foundation for any good relationship is good communication.

Every Jew knew how to pray. Although the order of the Jewish Prayer Book, the Siddur, was only formalised soon after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, standardised prayers date back at least to the time of Ezra. It is possible that Jesus’ prayers were so different from the formal prayers of the time that the disciples wanted Him to teach them His way of communicating with the Father. However, even John taught his followers how to pray, so it might not be totally clear as to the disciple’s motive for the request.

In reply, Jesus first gave them an outline, then an exposition of that outline, and ended with a hyperbolic application. The form of the prayer focuses on life in the Kingdom, first addressing the King with a pledge to live according to Kingdom principles, and then confessing the believer’s inability to live that life without Divine aid and Divine intervention and protection. As such, the “coming” of the Kingdom is a present reality revealed in and through the life of kingdom subjects. Dwight A. Pryor says that for Jesus, “the Kingdom of heaven is not some place in “the world to come” but the in-breaking activity of Someone in this world…It is not a political empire nor territorial domain, but God’s activity of supernaturally exercising dominion in the lives of those who receive Him as King”[2] In this light, the line usually translated and understood as a petition for future realisation of a spiritual or even physical entity, “May Your Kingdom Come”, is actually a request for God to rule and reign in the life of the petitioner and in the world through the petitioner. “Our chief duty, from Jesus’ point of view, is to sanctify or hallow God’s name (His person and character) in this world.”[3] In other words, the opening lines of the prayer is a request for God to be exalted through the petitioner so that His reign might be made evident through the petitioner’s manner of life which ought to reflect kingdom principles.

A summary of these principles follows with three requests: for provision (with obvious allusions to the provision of manna in the wilderness), for reconciliation (between the petitioner and God and the petitioner and others based upon an understanding of the mutual inadequacies of all kingdom subjects), and for protection or preservation (not to yield to the lifestyle of the old kingdom). It is interesting that the request for reconciliation (forgiveness) is conditional. The petitioner is actually asking the King to forgive him or her in the same way as he or she forgives others. The basic idea behind this condition is that the petitioner is to reflect the person and character of the King as part of hallowing God’s Name and of bringing the reality of Kingdom life into full relief as a contrast to the “dog eat dog” manner of the world. God is a forgiving God and His followers must reflect that quality.

Jesus then followed up on this teaching with a brief exposition of what the application of prayer would look like through the parable of the bold friend. What is often overlooked in modern day explanations of the meaning of this parable is the underlying Ancient Middle-Eastern custom of hospitality. Kenneth Bailey points out that the custom of the day would make the community at large responsible for the guest’s adequate entertainment. Neglecting to do so would reflect negatively on the whole village. “With this background in mind, verse 7 becomes clear. Verses 5 through 7 are together the extended question that expects an emphatic negative answer. Jesus is saying, “Can you imagine having a friend and going to him with the sacred request to help you entertain a guest, and then he offers silly excuses about sleeping children and a barred door?” The Oriental listener/reader knows the communal responsibility for the guest and responds, “No, we cannot imagine it.”[4]

The instruction to persevere or to persist in prayer is thus based upon the fact that God delights to answer the petitions of His subjects. That is His nature and it is the way of the kingdom.

In application, it seems Jesus was pointing out that God’s Name is hallowed and the realty of His Kingdom is made evident through answered prayer…especially for the life-directing indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the one who enables us to live out kingdom principles. Just as Ancient Middle-Eastern custom demanded a positive response from the inconvenienced sleeping friend, as to refuse would go contrary to the understood manner of the village, so too Kingdom custom demands a positive response from the King, as to refuse would go contrary to God’s person and character.

Thus for the disciple, the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray is the backbone for daily life in the Kingdom. It is the King Who makes His Kingdom evident through our submission and dependence on Him. His Name is hallowed when His gracious nature is observed through answered prayer. Through answered prayer the reality of His rule and His Kingship is made evident. In this light, prayer is as much for us as it is for the watching world, as answered prayer is a testimony to God’s gracious and merciful rule and reign in our lives.

[1] Bruce, Alexander Balmain, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, I The Synoptic Gospels, Hendrickson Publishers, 546.
[2] Pryor, Dwight A., Behold the Man! Discovering our Hebrew Lord, the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, Centre for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, OH, 2005, 124.
[3] Pryor, Dwight A., Unveiling the Kingdom of Heaven: The Origins and Dimensions of the Kingdom Concept as taught by the Rabbi Jesus, Center of Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, OH, 2008, 14.
[4] Bailey, Kenneth E., Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parable in Luke, Combine Edition, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, 124.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Voice

1 Kings 19:1-15a    Psalms 42,43    Galatians 3:23-29    Luke 8:26-39

One of the most watched videos on YouTube is surely the audition of Susan Boyle on the Britain’s Got Talent show. The image of the woman that walked onto the stage looked like a bad practical joke…a sack of potatoes would have worn that dress better than she did. The judges and the audience unashamedly showed their dislike and their disbelief and everyone thought this was going to be a short but painful event. But when she opened her mouth to sing, the initial shock changed into a roar of applause as Susan Boyle gave voice to her dream…a dream that turned her into an instant global celebrity. Her physical image had fooled them all.

Some in the industry thought that this could be a problem…that the first impression gained from what was seen prior to what was heard could negatively influence the judges and that their reaction might negatively influence the performer…so they started a show that had the judges facing the audience with their backs to the performer. This way they would judge the voice, not the appearance. If they liked what they heard they would turn around to face the contestant for the first time. It was what they heard, not what they saw that had the greatest impact on them and they judged that accordingly.

There is a spiritual lesson in this for us. When we focus on what we see in life rather than on what we hear when we listen to the voice of God, we too tend to make an error in judgement.
The story of Elijah is a great example of how adverse circumstances can lead us astray. If we went back one chapter in 1 Kings, we would have seen Elijah at his best…hearkening to the voice of God and obeying without question and without fear of what the wicked king and queen could do to him. On Mount Carmel, the prophet challenged the false prophets of Baal to a spiritual duel, as it were…each party, Elijah and the false prophets, was to offer a bull of their choice as a sacrifice, but were not to set fire to it. The God who answered by sending fire to burn up the offering would be considered the true God.

Most of us know the story from Sunday School lessons…the false prophets of Baal did their thing, but to no avail. Elijah went out of his way to make sure no one could ever say he cheated…precious water (remember there had been a three year drought at the time) was poured over his sacrifice and the wood three times, once for every year of drought, until everything was drenched. Then as Elijah prayed, fire fell from heaven and consumed everything…not just the sacrifice, but also the water and the stones and the dust.

Elijah at his best…obedient…fearless…faithful…

But when the queen threatened to have him killed in the very next chapter, what happened to Elijah? Verse three says, “Elijah was afraid and fled for his life.” He had just stood alone against 850 false prophets as well as the king and no doubt his officials and guards and soldiers. But now? In verse 4 he whimpers, “I have had enough Lord. Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” So God sent him on a journey…on a retreat, as it were…to regain perspective. He had to travel all the way to Mount Sinai…the same mountain on which Moses had received the 10 commandments.

But there were quite a few differences between the time when Moses was there and this time with Elijah. When God spoke to Moses, He spoke like thunder so that the whole nation heard the voice of God. In both cases God sent wind, an earthquake, and fire…but unlike Moses, God’s voice came to Elijah in a whisper…a still, small voice…

Elijah had been witness to God’s power…he really didn’t need to see more miraculous manifestations…he had seen God send fire from heaven and consume the entire sacrifice and altar and all. No, what Elijah needed now more than anything was that inner conviction that God was present…that He cared…that He was personally involved in the prophet’s life. A still, small voice was what Elijah needed…a gentle reminder that he was not alone.

The descendants of Korah obviously also needed a gentle reminder of God’s character. In Psalms 42 and 43, the Psalmists asked a reflective question: “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad?” The reason they were asking themselves these questions was because the answer was obvious. Why be cast down when your hope is in God? Circumstances were clouding their judgment. Their enemies taunted them, lied about them, and oppressed them. If they focused on these things, they would be discouraged and disheartened…but as they recounted the great things God had done in their past…as they reflected on the fact that He had never let them down before…that He had always been there for them when they had needed Him…they confidently answered their own question with a great statement of faith: “Why am I so discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my trust in God! I will praise Him again – my Saviour and my God!”

The still, small, inner voice of God gave them the ability to look past their dire and difficult present to see the Person of the one who was there through thick and thin, working out His great and wondrous purposes for His glory.

For Paul it was the voice of freedom through faith in the finished work of Christ that helped him face the Judaisers in Galatia…those who felt they needed to earn their salvation through obedience to the Law…and not only God’s Law, but the traditions of the elders that were put in place during and after the exile to ensure that no one could ever again provoke God to anger through disobedience…and in so doing they missed the whole point of the Law. The Law was only a custodian…a guardian that served to protect them until they had been put right with God. Since Jesus came and made us right with God by taking away the barrier of sin, the Law was no longer needed as a guardian. Trying to obey out of our own strength in an attempt to earn God’s favour could only lead to frustration and discouragement. It is only in Christ that we are able to be obedient in His strength…not ours.
We do not even approach His Table trusting in our own righteousness, but in His great and manifold mercies…that’s what we say every time prior to coming to meet with Jesus in and through the Eucharist, right? It is in the stillness of our hearts that we hear His voice of favour as we receive the symbols of His love and acceptance in Christ.

But there is another voice that we read about this morning…the voice of command…a stern and powerful voice…the voice Jesus uses when addressing our enemies. “Come out of him!” No argument, no compromise…a concession, perhaps, by allowing the demons to flee into the pigs, but still a voice of absolute authority. It is the same voice Jesus used to still the storm. “Peace! Be still!” It is the same voice Jesus used to stop Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of the Church, in his tracks. “Saul! He thundered, “Why are you persecuting Me?”

When Jesus told His disciples that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him, He was not engaging in idle chatter. He meant what He said. This is very comforting to us, as we know that when He speaks, He always has the final word. Just as He spoke creation into existence, so He speaks new life into those who confess faith in Him…and He promises that nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus…that no one will be able to snatch us out of His hand…that we are His and He is ours.

The voice that put the planets into orbit still speaks today. We hear Him clearly in His Word…and we hear Him in His Sacraments. His promises are true…He is not a human being that He should try to impress us with empty words or lies…no, He is the truth and when He says it He will do it. Humanity may have many plans in their hearts, but it is the Lord’s will alone that will be established.  

Our response to this depends on our focus…what are we looking at? Our circumstances? Our trials? Or struggles? Our sickness? The state of our fallen, broken world? If that is our focus we will be as negative as the judges and the audience at Britain’s Got Talent when Susan Boyle walked out on the stage…and we too will be proved wrong…when our Lord speaks…when His voice is heard.

The Eucharist reminds us that there is a cost to living holy lives in a sinful world. Wicked rulers may oppose us, our enemies may oppress us, demons may challenge us, and heretics may plague the Church…but the same still small voice, the unchanging Word, the authoritative command, is still heard…and we hear it here…at His banquet table. Can you hear it? It is finished! In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.

So as you come to our Lord’s Table once again this morning, lift up your hearts and be encouraged. God is not silent. The same voice that calmed the fearful heart of Elijah speaks to you today. Open your ears…and listen…
© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-06-18