On March 6th, we said good-bye to our home in Easton, PA, loaded up our rented Chrysler Pacifica, and began our journey south to Miami, from where we will fly out of the U.S. and into Costa Rica to start a new life. It was surreal. Nothing could have prepared us for the emotional moments of walking out our front door for the last time and saying “adiós” to family and friends and the city we loved.
The small part of me, that voice up in my head, keeps saying to me, “This is crazy. Who do you think you are moving to another country? How dare you!” We all have this small part that detests the unknown. Tabatha and I have boldly stepped into the unknown. We are on the road, making our way toward a new home in a new country – both of which we’ve only seen in pictures. Oh Lord, please don’t let it be run-down and cockroach-infested like our last hotel room.
The most challenging part about it all is trusting the people we hired. The small self has serious trust issues. Yet here we are trusting people we’ve never met face-to-face. This is challenging every trust molecule in my body. But we can’t make this move without their help, so we have no choice but to trust them to do their job.
I often consider myself an anxious person with trust issues, and I feel guilty for not trusting God enough. Maybe I have much less of an issue with trust than I give myself credit for because here I am going through this monumental move, despite what my small self has to say about it – despite how it feels. Maybe I really do trust God.
I was surprised that I didn’t feel sad or scared at all leaving it all behind. Instead, I felt deeply grateful. I found myself saying silently to it all, “Thanks for the wonderful memories.” I’m ending a wonderful old chapter of my life and starting another wonderful new chapter, perhaps even more wonderful than the last.
There is a bigger part of me that is thoroughly enjoying this adventure – loving every minute of letting go and anticipating what’s in store. This bigger part – who we really are – loves the unknown and the surprises that occur as life unfolds. When we identify with this part, we can relax and enjoy life instead of trying to control it, which is mission impossible – the perfect recipe for misery.
Everyone should do something boldly outside their comfort zone at least once in their life. I may feel a bit exhausted, but at the same time, I’ve honestly never felt so free and so alive.
Stay tuned: We are flying to Costa Rica next week to begin our new life.
Moving to Costa Rica … what a glorious dream! Warm weather, lush green scenery, toucans and monkeys, friendly people, and a slower pace of life. Before we made the decision to move to Costa Rica, life was mundanely simple: eat, sleep, work, play. After we made the decision to move to Costa Rica … mayhem!
It felt like we suddenly became the ring masters of a three-ring circus with the extreme stress of keeping all the wild animals at bay. In Ring #1 was the Logistics Lion, an unpredictable critter that clawed us on a couple of occasions. In Ring #2 was the Shipping Beast, staring us down hungrily. But they were tame compared to what was in Ring #3: the Residency Raptor, waiting patiently for an opportunity to pounce on us and eat us alive.
Alright, maybe I’m exaggerating (a little), but seriously … I’ve found the process of relocating to another country to be very stressful. I’m already an anxious kind of person, and this has triggered every anxious molecule in my body and tested just how much I really trust God. It’s difficult to relocate on one’s own, especially when you’ve never done anything remotely like it in your entire life. We hired help, but there were still many things we had to manage ourselves.
First was figuring out how to get rid of stuff. We had to decide what stuff we couldn’t live without, set it aside for packing, and get rid of the rest. I didn’t realize how much unused stuff we had until I had to figure out how to get rid of it. And you know what happens when you start sorting through things.
“Memories … light the corners of my mind … misty water-colored memories … of the way we were.”
Sorry … Barbara Streisand suddenly starting singing in my head.
It was an emotional rollercoaster ride. Some memories were happy ones, and some were sad, but I discovered something wonderful when sorting through it all: the fact that no one is going to know me in Costa Rica. I can go there and be whoever I want to be, and no one will say, “Hey, you’ve changed, and I don’t like it.” The only one who knows me is my wife, and at our wedding, we vowed to “love each new version of one another.” So, she’s stuck with me.
That was a very pleasant discovery along with many other pleasures that came with the pain of getting rid of stuff. We stopped living in clutter. We realized that we could happily survive with far less stuff. But best of all, we made our neighbors very happy by selling stuff cheap on Facebook Marketplace. We sold our portable dishwasher for $100, and the woman who came to our door to pick it up was absolutely ecstatic. She almost forgot to pay us in her zeal to get that thing out our door and into her kitchen ASAP. We also posted lots of free stuff on Facebook’s “Buy Nothing,” and we got a card from a neighbor thanking us for our generosity. It’s true: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Then there was selling the house. The day the house hit the market, we were bombarded with requests for showings. We could barely keep them all straight. One realtor showed up, and were still getting dressed. Another relator locked us out of our own house! The parade in and out of our house was insane. We had 30 showings in four days. We couldn’t just get in the car and go somewhere because we had our dog, Jackson. We didn’t want to leave our poor little anxious boy in his crate all alone with groups of people coming in and going out. At one point during a showing, we were standing outside with the dog in the cold rain, and we all ended up piling into the car to get warm and dry off.
On the first day of showings, we accidentally ran into a lovely couple checking out our back yard. Actually, Jackson ran up to them, and we ran after Jackson. They said, “You have a lovely home.” We really liked them (so did Jackson apparently), and we said a little prayer that they would put in an offer.
We had nine offers. It turned out that theirs was the first and the best. We were overjoyed. We didn’t want to sell to any investors, who would make our home an exorbitant $2000 per month rental, contributing to the problem of unaffordable housing in this community (and everywhere). We wanted it to be a home for someone. We were proud to sell our home to this local interracial couple who wants to start a family here. God had answered our prayer.
There’s also finding a place to live in Costa Rica. It’s a truly unnerving feeling selling your house before you even know where you’re going to be living … in a foreign country no less! We had to trust our relocation specialist to find us a place. After the first week, she said to us, “We’re having an unusually difficult time finding available rentals in your preferred location.” Our hearts sank (and skipped a couple beats). We started checking out other locations, but I said a little prayer asking God to help her find the perfect place for us in our preferred location.
Two days later, she found a rental in our chosen location that has everything we want for the most part. But there was an added bonus: It’s a tico-style home. The people who live in Costa Rica are called ticos, so we’re going to be living in true Costa-Rican style! We didn’t want to live in Costa Rica and feel like we were still living in the U.S. If we saw a Walmart in a neighborhood, we were like, “Oh no, we don’t want to live there!” There are many Americans who move to Costa Rica and want all the comforts of their American lifestyle. Not us. We want to leave our American lifestyle behind in America, and when in Costa Rica, live like the Costa Ricans. God answered our prayers again!
And finally there’s getting residency. Oh my, what a complicated beast that is! There are a lot of documents to get together like birth certificates, marriage license, copies of passports, and FBI fingerprint checks. All documents have to be apostilled, and some documents needed to be notarized before being apostilled.
Do you know what an apostille is? I had no clue. It sounded like French to me. When I first heard the word, I imagined it to be the name of Napoleon Bonaparte’s war headquarters. The Apostille! But no, it’s how a state or country certifies the validity of its own documents for other countries. The process can take a while, and the documents can’t be older than six months when we apply for residency. So, timing is crucial.
The most unnerving part was entrusting our documents to our elected officials to get them apostilled. After all the time and energy and expense we went through to get the documents ready for apostille, I was very reluctant to hand them over. These days, I don’t have much confidence in any politician to get any job done any time soon. But I handed them over, and I prayed to God that they wouldn’t get ignored or lost or forgotten buried under a pile of papers on someone’s desk.
This week, we finally received all our apostilled documents back. God answered our prayers once again. God is still faithful – even to me of little faith. We are so grateful to have this opportunity to live in Costa Rica. Not everyone has this opportunity, but we do because of my wife’s pension. She didn’t make much money working for the government, but she enjoyed serving her community. A new life in a beautiful country is the reward for her service, and I get the pleasure of tagging along.
Stay tuned for the next post in early March … Moving to Costa Rica: On the Road.
My wife and I have decided to sell our house, sell or give away most of the things we own, pack up the rest, and move to Costa Rica – and we’ve never even been there.
You might be thinking, “What? Are you nuts?” The practical mind has relentlessly asked us this same question. To address its concerns, we have several practical reasons for making Costa Rica our new home: a warmer climate, a lower cost of living, better health care, politically stable, very friendly people, and a high happiness and sustainability index.
Still, the mind argues, “But you’ve never been there!” Just because we’ve extensively researched, spoken to many people, and heard a lot of great things about Costa Rica doesn’t mean we’re going to like it there. True. We may not. But we feel we’re not going to figure that out from a vacation or two. We need to live there. Really experience the place. Become part of its culture and people. We need to risk a serious commitment, and we’ve learned enough about this country to feel it’s worth the risk.
To live life to the fullest, we must be willing to take risks, trusting in God. We’ve been somewhat happy living here in the United States. The same is true with our home here in PA. But we want to experience and embrace a different culture – a culture more laid-back and peace-loving, a culture more concerned about having good relationships with other human beings and with the Earth.
Now more than ever, we need to be willing to open ourselves up to experiencing other cultures. That’s the only way to begin to understand people who are different from us. By understanding their traditions and struggles, we can begin to view them as human beings just like us. This challenges the “us versus them” mentality plaguing humanity, keeping us in conflict with one another.
We also can begin to challenge the assumptions we live by. There are other choices around how we can choose to live our lives, but we might not see them because we have been so conditioned by our culture.
The small self keeps telling me, “This isn’t who you are. You’re a home-body. You’ve never even left the country except to go to Niagara Falls, and that doesn’t even count.” Indeed. Oftentimes, I look at our boxes ready to be shipped and hear the increased echoing of our house as it is emptied of all our stuff, and I think, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
While the small self is busy questioning and protesting, the True Self within me feels so peaceful and so excited for this grand adventure on which we are about to embark. That’s the part that has given us a sign encouraging us to go after this dream without fear.
The sign is the sloth. The sloth is the national symbol of Costa Rica, like the Eagle for America. In June, my wife picked a birthday card for me with a sloth on it. We didn’t learn that the sloth was Costa Rica’s national symbol until the following month when we were researching Costa Rica. Over the weekend, we were shopping in Boscov’s for a suitcase. We picked one that was perfect for us, and it was even on sale. We didn’t notice until we were in the checkout line that the suitcase had toucans on it and … guess what else? Yes, sloths!
Sometimes when we think we’re happy, we have no idea how much more happy we can be until God moves us out of our familiar places where our lives have become stale, and we’re no longer growing. We’re never stuck – except by our own fears. We have our fears, but we have more trust that God has something grand in store for us.
I invite you, my dear readers, to join us on this grand adventure. Stay tuned for future posts!
We humans love to debate. Tis the season of political debates. Over the past few years, though it seems as if political debating has become open season. Any time, any place. That’s how it is with religious debate too. We love to debate about religion – any time, any place – so much so that some of the things we fixate on and argue about can be kind of silly.
For example, many people take the Bible story of man’s creation very seriously. They consider it a flawless account. Unfortunately, there are holes left in the story that some Christians’ inquiring minds can’t help but poke at. Two particular holes that are engage many Christians in serious (but hilarious) religious debate involve Adam and Eve’s belly buttons.
Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons? I mean, since God formed Adam from mud and Eve was born from Adam’s rib, neither of them would have had a belly button, right? Ah … but there’s also the possibility that God gave Adam one for purely aesthetic reasons.
Some artists have skirted this debate by placing fig leaves over the area in their representations of Adam and Eve. Some have painted Adam and Eve smooth-bellied, and some have given them belly buttons. Which leads to another very serious debate – where they innies or outies?
Today’s gospel reading is about a religious debate – certainly about a more serious topic than Adam and Eve’s belly buttons. The Sadducees were Jews who did not believe in a future age where the dead would be raised. They went toe-to-toe with Jesus about this, and we can learn a lot from his response.
First, let’s review the context. Jesus had already made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and he caused quite a stir. People started asking, “Who is this guy everyone’s yelling “Hosanna!” about? Jesus immediately cleansed the Temple by driving out the merchants and money-changers. Then people started asking, “Who does this guy think he is?”
While Jesus was in Jerusalem, he frequented the Temple, from where he taught whoever would listen – even those who stood around hoping for a way to discredit or condemn him. The chief priests and scribes saw Jesus as a serious threat, so they tried to trick him into saying something that would justify their arresting him.
One day, while Jesus was teaching at the Temple, the chief priests, scribes, and elders came and asked him, “What gives you the right to drive out the Temple money-changers?” In his usual style, Jesus answered their question with a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” After responding that they didn’t know, Jesus said, “Well then, I’m not going to answer your question.”
Then he told the Parable of the Wicked Tenets, where he spoke out against the chief priests and scribes. He identified himself as the beloved son of the vineyard owner and them as the wicked tenets who killed the son and lost the vineyard.
The chief priests, scribes, and elders were enraged by this, so they started sending spies to try to trap Jesus by asking him questions that might get him into civic or religious trouble if he didn’t answer right. First was a question about paying taxes, which they thought would force Jesus between a rock and a hard place. Jesus brilliantly responded to give to the Emperor what is his and to God what is God’s.
That brings us to today’s scripture reading. The Sadducees now take the opportunity to question this master because they have a theological ax to grind with the Pharisees.
The Sadducees and Pharisees differed in their theological viewpoints. The Sadducees believed in following the Law as found in the Torah and only as found in the Torah – the first five books of the Bible. They considered anything else immaterial, including the Pharisees’ many “Traditions of the Elders,” which the Sadducees felt served only to complicate the lives of the Jewish people.
On this point, Jesus agreed with them.
The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead and the afterlife. They believed that the only life we have is this world right here and now, and it’s our responsibility to follow God’s Laws. If we don’t, we suffer. That’s all there is to it. There’s no “other world” of a future time where God will bring dead people back to life and bring justice down on their oppressors.
Luke clearly points out the hypocrisy of the Sadducees’ asking Jesus this question about the resurrection when they themselves do not believe in the resurrection. They are simply trying to “stump” this master teacher with their brilliant scenario that they think surely makes the Pharisees’ doctrine of the resurrection ridiculous.
If Jesus is stumped, then their theological position denying the resurrection is bolstered. Their scenario probably wasn’t new to the Pharisees. We can image them rolling their eyes: “Oh, for crying out loud! Here we go again. “‘Now there were seven brothers ….’”
The command the Sadducees are referring to can be found in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. The purpose of the Mosaic law commanding the brother of the deceased to take his widow as a bride was to protect the nation by ensuring that every family and tribe would continue. No one’s family name would be lost.
We can understand how important it was for the Jews since it was believed that the Messiah would be born of a woman from the tribe of Judah, of the line of David.
It seems the Sadducees felt that Moses didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead because of this law. They figure he must have believed that the only way to be “immortal” (in a non-literal sense) was to keep the family name alive through descendants. If he believed in the resurrection of the dead, why did he create this law?
The Sadducees didn’t believe that the Kingdom of God would arrive at some future time; it’s here now. If it’s here now, then it’s not any different from now. So, people would get married just like they do now, and if the dead are resurrected, that would create quite a problem for a woman had to choose a husband from among seven brothers.
It seems like a logical argument on the surface, but Jesus quickly points out the flaws.
Their first is an application error. They are applying a law from “this age” to “that age.” This is Not That. Jesus essentially says to them, “People die in this age, so they must get married and have children to carry on the family name. People don’t die in that age, so getting married and having children isn’t necessary. Moses created the law for this age, not for that age.”
Their second error is confusion about natural law, which lead to them making their first error. It’s clear that we live in a world of duality – of opposites – of this and that. If there’s “this age,” then there has to be “that age” because it’s impossible for anything to exist without its opposite. Its opposite must exist at the same time, so the Sadducees were correct on this point: the Kingdom of God (that age) is here right now, existing simultaneously with this age. How is that possible?
In the Taoist religion of the East, there a wonderful symbol that expresses this idea: the Yin and Yang symbol. Yin exists relative to Yang and vice versa: light is light relative to darkness. Without darkness, we can’t experience light because we need light as a reference point. Yin and Yang also transform into each other; day turns to night and night to day in never-ending cycles. These opposing forces complement each other nicely because they are in perfect balance.
We westerners might have trouble relating to an eastern symbol, so I brought a symbol we can better relate to: a coin. This coin contains a this and a that. Two opposites – heads and tails. Heads is not tails and tails is not heads. They are opposites; yet, they exist at the same time – united in one object.
We can think of this age as “heads,” and that age as “tails.” Heads is this age of time – and tails is that age of eternity. They are total opposites, yet they exist simultaneously. We experience whichever side is up. The other side is hidden, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
The Sadducees were ignoring the fact that in a dualistic world, if there’s a “this,” there must be a “that.” If there is this age, there must be that age. If we must marry and have children in this age of time because we die, then we must not need to in that age of eternity because we don’t die. This is not That.
Another error the Sadducees made is to focus only on the parts of the Scriptures that bolster their argument and not looking at the Scriptures as a whole. Common mistake, right? People zero in on the parts of the Bible that defend their argument, and ignore the parts that don’t.
Jesus says in verses 37-38, “And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Jesus proved the Sadducees wrong, and some of the scribes responded, “Well said, teacher!” I guess some Scribes believed in the resurrection. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pharisees were also very happy with Jesus’ response, thinking to themselves, “Finally, he agrees with us on something!” Truly, Jesus argued with the Pharisees quite a bit throughout the New Testament.
But neither the Sadducees nor the Pharisees were totally right or totally wrong. When it comes to the Great Mystery of Life, we humans have many philosophies, but no one has it exactly right. We have only ideas that may be closer to the truth than others, but until something proves our theories correct, we simply don’t know. There is so much that is hidden. That’s why we need faith.
We know more now than the people of Jesus’ time. Science has revealed to us that everything in the universe is made up of either matter or energy, and just like day and night, they transform into each other in never-ending cycles.
In this age of time, we experience ourselves as this body made of matter but on the flip side, in that age of eternity, we experience ourselves as something like energy. If we’re part of this never-ending cycle of transformation, from flesh to spirit and from spirit to flesh, maybe that’s why to God, we are all alive.
Sometimes we exist on the heads side, in the world of time and form, and we have a human nature. Inevitably, we transform and enter the tails side, the world of eternity and spirit, where we have a totally different nature because this is not that.
We may know and understand more now than people did back in Jesus’ time, but the more we know, the more we scratch our heads and realize how much more we don’t know about the Great Mystery of Life. Nevertheless, we love to debate what we think we know.
That’s why Luke included this debate in his Gospel. It’s a serious topic. It’s critical to the gospel message because if there is no resurrection, then Jesus didn’t resurrect from the dead, and there’s no salvation.
What does this debate have to teach us today in our modern times? Well, there’s a whole lot of religious debate going on today because many people want to argue that the rules of this age apply to that age.
They don’t. That’s lesson #1.
I personally love this passage because in it, Jesus says straightforwardly that that our human coupling rules are only for this age. In that age, souls do not have husbands or wives. Some might find this disturbing; others might find it quite comforting.
One minister tells the story of a woman with terminal cancer. Her husband suddenly died of a heart attack. At the funeral, well-meaning friends leaned over to her as she sat in her wheelchair and reminded her that they would soon be reunited in heaven, that it would not be long before they were together again. Later, when she was alone with the minister, she said, with tears streaming down her face, “I am never going to be rid of him, am I?”
So why would some say that the doors to that age are shut to souls who got a divorce in this age or souls who married someone of the same sex in this age when marriage doesn’t even exist in that age?
They say that because it’s comforting to them to think that age is the same as this age because they are too strongly attached to this age. They don’t want to let it go. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that age to be the same as this age at all. I’m looking forward to something different.
Those who don’t understand who they are have no vision beyond this age and their physical existence, so they have no choice but to cling to this age. They cling to this age because they fear death, believing that this is all there is or because they desire the things of this world. They want to believe that they can take their bodies and all their stuff with them.
They can’t. That’s lesson #2.
We are part of a never-ending cycle of transformation, so we don’t need to fear death. We don’t die. We transform. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of our bodies. We are here for a purpose, and we can’t fulfill that purpose very well unless we keep our physical vehicle healthy.
As humans beings we also naturally have desires, but it’s our responsibility to keep our desires properly balanced. We must be willing to let go of everything that belongs to this age.
The Buddhists are really good at letting go. Richard Rohr is an American Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970. In his YouTube video, “How Buddha Helps Me Be a Better Christian,” he talks about how helpful it was to humanity that the Buddha essentially said, “I don’t know the nature of God, so I’m not going to debate about that.”
The Buddha’s refusal to dwell on the nature of God freed him to focus on something more practical. He observed how we humans process our life experiences. He observed what goes on up here (head) and in here (heart). We can use his insights to become more self-aware, which can make us better Christians. We can use Buddhism to discover how to let go and find balance.
We must be ready to let go of everything that is of this age to prepare for that age. But we have free will, so it is our responsibility to choose to let go. Perhaps the ones who can let go are the ones Jesus was talking about when in verse 35, he said, “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age.”
So, the truth is that when it comes to that age, we don’t know much – at least not up here in our heads. The personal self knows nothing about the soul or the afterlife. It knows only this age, and it’s quite attached to it by nature. But our hearts know that age very well. We can have faith in what our hearts tell us and confidently let go of the things of this age.
Let’s pray together: Lord, you taught us to be in this world, but not of it. Help us to learn this lesson deeply now as we prepare ourselves to let go of this age and resurrect into a new age. AMEN.
Craig Brian Larson, pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, shares this story.
“Pali, this bull has killed me.” So said Jose Cubero, one of Spain’s most brilliant matadors, before he lost consciousness and died.
Only 21 years old, he had been enjoying a spectacular career. However, in this l958 bullfight, Jose made a tragic mistake. He thrust his sword a final time into a bleeding, delirious bull, which then collapsed. Considering the struggle finished, Jose turned to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. The bull, however, was not dead. It rose and lunged at the unsuspecting matador, its horn piercing his back and puncturing his heart.
Just when we think we’ve finished off pride, just when we turn to accept the congratulations of the crowd, pride stabs us in the back. We should never consider pride dead before we are.”
That’s what today’s scripture reading is about. Jesus always told parables to make a point, so the context is important. Luke tells us that Jesus told this particular parable in response to those who were “confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”
In this story, there are two people: the first is a Pharisee. Today, the word Pharisee has become synonymous with “religious hypocrite.” But back in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were highly respected. They were deeply religious laymen who committed themselves to moral behavior and religious tradition. They can be compared to church deacons or other highly-respected lay members of the Christian church.
So, a Pharisee comes to the temple to pray, and he thanks God that he is not like “other people,” his list including the tax collector standing at a distance. He also mentions how he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets. The Torah requires fasting only once a year and tithing only on income, not property. My friend Yvonne would call this guy an “overachiever.”
The Pharisee feels pretty good about himself, doesn’t he? Is it OK to feel good about ourselves? If we grew-up in certain Christian churches, we might not feel like it is. We might have spent a whole lot of time contemplating our sin, confessing our sin, and begging God for forgiveness.
I don’t believe Jesus’ problem was with the Pharisee’s self-esteem. I think his problem was with what it was based on. It was based on what he does, not who he is.
This particular Pharisee sees himself as self-reliant, perfectly capable of establishing his own righteousness though his deeds. He probably figures that he’s earning even more favor with God than even the other Pharisees since he’s going above and beyond the call of Torah.
What is his true motivation for performing these deeds? Does he do them out of his devotion to his loving Creator, who gives him life, sustains his life, and without whom he can do nothing? Or does he do them out of devotion to his religious self-image: his own personal “golden calf.”
The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like “other people.” Yet, is he really different when the Life animating his physical body is exactly the same in everyone and everything that lives? Life that comes from God, is eternally connected to and sustained by God, and is part of all of Life in Christ. The separation the Pharisee is thanking God for is impossible.
But with that one statement, he reveals that in his pride, he has drawn a little circle around himself designed to keep out all those whom he perceives to not be as righteous as he is. He has no idea that in doing so, he has separated himself.
Contrast the Pharisee with the second character in Jesus’ parable: the tax collector. Jesus tells us that he stands at a distance, beats his breast, and says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” How does the tax collector’s attitude compare to the Pharisee’s?
The tax collector is repentant. Instead of thanking God for how good he is, he approaches God calling himself a “sinner” and asking for forgiveness.
His use of the “s” word might make some of us cringe, but the Hebrew word for sin (khaw-taw’) means “to miss.” Some of us might have heard this word interpreted to mean “to miss the mark,” like to miss some kind of target.
But really, it’s more like when we say, “Oh, I missed that” because weren’t paying attention. We weren’t present. We weren’t aware. The word is less about acts and more about attitude. It’s less about what we are DOING and more about who we are BEING. Are we being who God created us to be, or are we living unconsciously, in forgetfulness?
The tax collector is humble. He stands at a distance, which demonstrates how unworthy he feels in God’s presence. He holds no illusions about how he has been living his life, and he doesn’t compare himself to anyone but God, in whose image he is created.
From the perspective of its Hebrew meaning then, when the tax collector calls himself a sinner, he is confessing that has forgotten himself – that has been living his life unconsciously. And he knows that coming into His Father’s presence, being present, can restore to him the memory of Christ within him, in unity with the Father, whose righteousness was, is, and ever shall be firmly established by God.
What does this passage have to say to us in our modern times? I think it’s asking us an important question. The question is this: How do we want to establish our worth?
Let’s say that, like the Pharisee, we want to establish it ourselves through our religious deeds. The world places a lot of value on achievement: physical, educational, economic, religious, even spiritual. There is nothing wrong with feeling good about our triumphs. But when we choose to establish our worth by ourselves through our achievements, “doing” becomes the yardstick, and we step into a life of constant “measuring up.”
This leads to incessant striving. There are 614 Torah laws, and following them all is quite an undertaking. That’s why the Pharisees were so highly respected. Most Jews didn’t have the education, resources, or (frankly) the motivation to follow Torah so meticulously. But it wasn’t enough for this Pharisee to simply follow Torah laws; he had to exceed them, but not out of devotion to God. He just had to be better than everyone else.
It also leads to constant judgment and rivalry. You can see how the Pharisee takes his yardstick and places it next to the tax collector. This kind of rivalry makes mutual respect and cooperation impossible.
Prideful people can’t give anyone but themselves credit. They can’t admit when they’re wrong, so they never apologize. They won’t allow people in their lives who are “beneath them” or those who are “above them” because it would threaten their self-image. What effect do you think this has on their relationships with others?
The belief that our personal life experiences, education, religious beliefs, etc. are more valid than anyone else’s – that we are right and everyone else is wrong – that we are a saint and everyone else is a sinner – that we are God’s chosen, and everyone else is rejected by God – is nothing more than a delusion.
This delusion makes peace impossible, both inner peace and peace out there. It is an insatiable monster. The more we feed it the more it hounds us, never giving us a moment’s peace. We’re no longer free but chained to an idol that demands constant polishing.
So, should we be more like those Christians who slog through their lives, viewing themselves as hopeless sinners, constantly beating their breasts in self-contempt, professing themselves totally worthless? Those sackcloth-and-ashes Christians must be really good Christians!
Actually, they are no better than the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. They are also attempting to establish their own righteousness, but on the flip side. Rather than congratulating themselves in an attempt to prove themselves “more righteous than thou,” they are castigating themselves in an attempt to prove themselves “more humble than thou.”
It’s just the other side of the same coin called “pride.”
Do these Christians see themselves united with God as One with Christ, whose righteousness is eternally established by God – or – in an attempt to earn righteousness, do they stubbornly cling to a separated view of themselves, the way the Pharisee sees himself in Jesus’ story?
Wouldn’t it be a terrible blow to their pride to learn the Truth: that all their congratulations and castigations – all that hard work they have done their entire lives to establish their own worth – is totally futile because their worth has already been established – but not by them?
An apt proverb found in Guideposts magazine states, “God wisely designed the human body so that we can neither pat our own backs nor kick ourselves too easily.”
Now, let’s say, like the tax collector, we want to let God establish our worth through our unity with Christ. His attitude reflects a life of reliance upon that as the sole measure of his worth. It’s not about what he is DOING, but about who he is BEING.
The tax collector embraces self-examination and repentance. He is not afraid to take an honest look at himself, so he has no charades to preserve, no illusions about himself to protect. He can live fearlessly, because, knowing that his actions are not a measure of his worth, he is free to learn and grow from both his triumphs and mistakes. He is free to take both in stride.
The tax collector embraces a life of humility, comparing himself only to God. He recognizes that he is created in the image of God, so he has no need to compare himself to others. He has no need to be “unlike” or even “like” anyone else. Not only does this secure peace within himself, but it also makes peace with others far more likely.
Truly humble people easily and frequently give others credit where credit is due. They freely admit when they’re wrong and have no difficulty apologizing. They make friends easily with all kinds of people because they have nothing to hide – no self-image to defend. What effect do you think this has on their relationships with others?
Being real requires embracing being vulnerable. REAL people have better relationships with God, with themselves, and with others because they have nothing to hide. And they have peace because they accept the fact that their righteousness is already established – by God.
So how can we make the tax collector’s choice, the choice to let God establish our worth instead of constantly trying to measure up and establish it ourselves?
We can stop doing. God says to us, “You are my creation, and I love you forever,” and we respond, “No thanks God, I’d rather earn it.” You see how arrogant that is? That’s a decision made by the stubborn, delusional little self.
The idea that nothing we do makes any difference when it comes to our relationship to God or our worth in his sight is difficult for many people to accept. Some think, “Well, if people can do anything they want without any consequences, then what’s to stop people from feeling free to commit all kinds of evil?”
If you have children, it’s easier to understand. Children related to you by blood will forever be your son or daughter, linked to you by heredity. Nothing can change that. And no matter what he or she does, you will always love him or her. Yet your children’s hereditary relationship with you and your unconditional love doesn’t prevent your children from making their own decisions, and it doesn’t protect them from the consequences of the decisions they make.
It’s the same with God. No matter what we do, we are eternally linked to God as His offspring, and God will always love us. However, our experience of our relationship to God and of God’s love for us can be blocked if we choose. It’s blocked mainly by fear, which is the root feeling behind other human emotions like pride.
So, would people allowing themselves to accept and therefore experience our eternal connection with God and the love of God most likely inspire them to commit acts of evil, or acts of love? You see, those who insist on DOING to establish our righteousness do not understand that when we are BEING who we truly are, we don’t have to worry at all about what we’re DOING because everything we do will be inspired by the love of Christ.
We can also stop comparing ourselves to others. If we’ve stopped doing, there’s no need, right? When we stop comparing ourselves to others, we begin to feel OK about being different from others, and we begin to feel OK about others being different from us. We can have different opinions, different beliefs, different needs – it’s all OK – because these differences do not threaten our worth at all.
When we stop comparing ourselves to others, we are able to gracefully acknowledge our own imperfections. We love being around people like this, don’t we? In their presence, we feel we have permission to be authentically who we are – warts and all. In their presence, we feel safe – accepted for who we are – because there is no competition.
When there is no more striving to earn God’s love, when there is no more desire to compare ourselves to others, when there is no more need to hide the shadowy parts of ourselves, what is left?
BEING. That’s all. We are free to be – and to let others be. So, in every moment of our lives, we can ask ourselves, “Am I BEING the love, peace, and joy that I AM, or have I forgotten myself?”
Let’s pray together:
Lord, it’s so easy to get swept away by the chaos in our daily lives. It’s so easy to lose the present moment: to become anxious, to slip into “doing,” to slip into measuring our worth by comparing ourselves to others. Help us to accept the firmly established righteousness gifted to us by our Creator, to know that we are OK, and that others are OK, that we may have peace within ourselves and peace with our brothers and sisters. AMEN.
Synopsis: Our physical body and personality are dead things without God’s life-giving power. When we forget that we are so much more than these dead things, we suffer from spiritual leprosy. We feel as if we’re already dead, and that’s no way to live.
A story is told of a man who was lost in the woods. Later, in describing the experience, he told how frightened he was and how he had even finally knelt and prayed. Someone asked, “Did God answer your prayer?” “Oh, no,” the man replied. “A guide came along and showed me the way out.”
Like this man, many people are blind to the blessings that God showers upon us every day. Sooner or later, they end up with a case of spiritual leprosy. Fortunately, there is a cure. That’s what today’s gospel reading is all about.
At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had been making his way toward Jerusalem where he would complete his mission to glorify God. In Luke chapter 9, he began preparing his disciples for his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. After Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the “Messiah of God,” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone, but then he said in verse 22, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
He didn’t say yet that this will take place in Jerusalem, but later in Luke chapter 13, he hints at it. In verses 32-33, after some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus says, “Go and tell that fox (Herod) for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day, I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”
It won’t be until Luke chapter 18 that Jesus tells his disciples straightforwardly that his final destination is Jerusalem. In verse 31, he says, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” We also read there that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying because that knowledge was purposely hidden from them.
In our gospel story for today, we read that Jesus is traveling along the border of Samaria and Galilee with his disciples on his way to Jerusalem. Samaria was sandwiched between Galilee, where Jesus lived with his family as a child, and Judea, where Jerusalem was located. He enters a village, and there he is approached by ten men suffering from leprosy.
They kept their distance, as they petitioned him saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jewish law required them to keep their distance, wear torn clothing, keep their heads uncovered, and cover their lips and shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” wherever they went to warn others to stay away.
Back in ancient times, illnesses were unfortunately considered God’s punishment for sin. This was certainly the case with leprosy. It was a horrible disease that, in its worst forms, slowly ate away at a person’s flesh. It wasn’t uncommon for a severely diseased finger or toe to just fall off – and sometimes an entire hand or foot.
The milder forms of the disease, where the skin was simply discolored, typically lasted no more than a few years and often cleared up on its own. But the worst type could last from nine to thirty years and eventually killed its victim.
If this physical suffering wasn’t bad enough, the social ostracism made the experience of the illness even worse. Jewish law cut them off from society totally – even from their own families. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that leprous men were treated as if they were already dead.
There were ten of them, and we know one of them was a Samaritan. We can be fairly certain that the other nine were Jewish, given where Jesus was traveling. It’s interesting to note that the Samaritan was welcome among the band of leprous Jews. I guess being treated like “dead men” strips away all pride.
Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. According to Jewish law, the only way they could be integrated back into Jewish society is if they were declared “clean,” and the only way to be declared clean was to be examined by a priest.
Interesting, right? Since they were unclean because of sin, not because of illness, they needed to be examined by a priest, not a physician. They did have physicians in ancient times; in fact, Luke, the author of this gospel, was a physician.
Along the way to see the priest, they were all miraculously healed. But only one of them came back to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice – the Samaritan. Jesus asks about the other nine, pointing out that only the foreigner properly expressed gratitude for his healing.
How can we apply this story to our modern times? Well, there are many suffering from spiritual leprosy today because they believe they are nothing more than this physical body, and they know what happens to it in the end. So deep down, they feel as if they are already dead, and that’s no way to live.
Some act stoic about it and make fun of people who believe there’s something more to us than just dirt. Some wish they could join with Christ, but they don’t feel worthy enough to approach him. And some believe they are “born again in Christ,” but that’s just up in their heads. Their hearts haven’t changed.
Make no mistake; they are all frightened. Death is frightening to those who believe it’s real. Once we truly join with Christ, we know we don’t die. Death is an illusion. We have eternal life in Christ.
How can those suffering from spiritual leprosy be cured? The same way these ten men were cured.
First, the leprous men call Jesus “Master.” They acknowledge Jesus’ authority. Whenever we need healing of any kind (physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual), we should remember the Lord’s words in Matthew 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The Power of Christ within us has the authority to make us whole according to the Will of God, so we shouldn’t hesitate to pray to the Lord for healing.
In her daily devotional, Trusting God Day by Day, Joyce Meyer writes, “God will do one of two things if you have a problem: He will either remove the problem (which is always our first choice!) or He will give you the strength, the grace, the ability to go through the problem. I know we don’t like the going through part, but if that is what God chooses, we need to trust Him.”
To trust in God’s Will takes spiritual maturity. It takes trusting that God loves us and knows what is best for us. And it takes accepting the fact that Life is not designed to make the personal self happy. The personal self might think we need a certain challenge in our life like we need a hole in the head, but that challenge might be just what we need to grow spiritually – and that’s why we’re here.
The leprous men also ask Jesus for mercy. When we ask for grace, we’re asking to get something we don’t deserve. When we ask for mercy, we’re asking to not get something we do deserve. In asking for mercy, these men were asking to be spared from death. In Romans chapter 6 verse 23, Paul writes, “the wages of sin is death … but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I like how Luke calls them “leprous men,” not just “leapers.” He’s pointing to their underlying humanity concealed by their leprous condition. Our underlying spiritual Essence is concealed by our physical bodies and personalities, which are basically “dead things.”
Some ministers will argue that this human nature is the consequence of our “original sin.” I personally don’t believe that. Our human nature is what it is. It is neither good nor bad. Without our human nature, the Divine within would have no physical form or personality with which to experience life.
And there are so many humans on this earth with so many different forms and with such a variety of personalities that I’m sure the Divine is having a grand time experiencing all of them and deeply appreciates our human nature. But our human nature is a dead thing without God’s life-giving power.
We’ve forgotten this in our modern world, but those of the ancient world were keenly aware that without God, we are dust. King David wrote in Psalm 103 “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But … the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.”
Ancient people like David and Paul knew they were dead things, but they also knew that God loves them eternally. Do we know that? You can really tell who knows it and who doesn’t especially at funerals. You can see the fear in the eyes of those who wonder if what’s lying in that coffin is all they really are.
When we ask for mercy, we are asking the Holy Spirit to cure us – to remind us of the Truth. We are infinitely more than these “dead things.” Each one of us. The Divine is the same in us all – one Consciousness experiencing life through a variety of forms.
The leprous men trust Jesus. It took a lot of trust for them to come to him. There was no cure for leprosy at that time. If they had gone to a physician, he probably would have said, “Oh man, you guys have leprosy. Sorry, I can’t help you. There’s no cure for that. So, you know, just stay away from me, OK?”
There are some illnesses today that we don’t understand, so we treat the afflicted in much the same way. People with diseases like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, mental illness, even cancer are often treated like lepers in our society – and even some people who aren’t sick like the poor and the homeless – as if poverty and homelessness were some infectious disease or contagious karma.
Jesus says, “I don’t care what disease you have or what your situation is; there’s always a chance for new life if you trust in God.” And the “trust test” was for them to make “a journey without evidence.” To go to the priests before there was any proof that they were healed. To “act as if.”
Luke doesn’t record whether the ten lepers engaged in any discussion on their way to the priests. We can imagine any of them to say, “Why are we going to the priests? We aren’t healed, and if we aren’t healed, then this is a useless journey.” And maybe an optimist among them replied, “Maybe, but what do we have to lose?”
When Jesus states, “Your faith has made you well” in verse 19, the Greek word used is “pistis.” It doesn’t mean adherence to a religion or set of doctrines. It means trust. So, a better translation of Jesus words would be, “Your trust has made you well.”
The mind is a tricky thing. We often resist the healing God is offering us because we have a negative attitude. We keep complaining about what’s wrong instead of expecting healing. When we stop resisting healing in this way and start “acting as if,” the results can be miraculous.
Finally, one of the leprous men returns to Jesus, praising God. Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” It might appear that Jesus is drilling the Samaritan about why his buddies haven’t shown up to give thanks – like some ministers drill family members about why other family members aren’t in church.
It might also seem rude that Jesus calls the man who returned “this foreigner,” but in Greek, the term simply meant non-Jew. Actually, he isn’t even speaking to the Samaritan. He is asking this question of the crowd that was following him to Jerusalem – a crowd that probably consisted mostly of Jews. It was a rhetorical question: a question asked not to get an answer, but to create a dramatic effect or to make a point.
Praising God is built into every aspect of Jewish life – Jews praise God for everything even for little things that may seem quite trivial to us – yet only this non-Jew took the opportunity to praise God for something as monumental as a miracle.
Jesus’ question could be better phrased, “Isn’t it ironic?”
Certainly, we might like to identify more with this grateful Samaritan and to pass judgement on those other ungrateful schmucks. What reasons might they have had for not returning to praise God?
Maybe one thought the disease had finally just cleared up on its own, so there was no one to thank but his lucky stars. Maybe another didn’t make the connection between Jesus’ words to go show himself to the priests and his healing, like the lost fellow in our story who didn’t make the connection between his prayer and the guide showing up.
Maybe another figured that God owed him one because he had a hard life. Maybe another didn’t want to go back to Jesus because – as much as he was happy to be healed – he didn’t really want to do what it took to follow Jesus. Maybe some of them were too busy planning their homecoming parties. Maybe the other nine didn’t want to walk back with a despised Samaritan.
Maybe we see a glimpse of ourselves in some of these schmucks.
In the business of our lives, it’s so easy to forget to thank God for our blessings. But the more we do that, the more we deny the power of God as the foundation of our lives, and the more we slip into spiritual leprosy, and the more we begin to wonder if we are nothing more than these “dead things,” and the more we feel separate from others.
So, you see, God doesn’t need us to praise Him. We need it.
We need it because we need constant reminders of who we are – in the busyness of our lives – because it’s so easy to get swallowed up by the illusion of our personal selves and this world – and forget who we are – to lose the knowledge of our salvation. We can’t actually lose our salvation, but we can forget.
So every day of our lives, let us be grateful to our merciful God, who has healed our spiritual leprosy through the knowledge of salvation given to us through the selfless service of Our Lord Jesus Christ and who reminds us of our salvation through the Power of His Holy Spirit, so that every day of our lives we may arise and go out and do the good work that He has given us to do.
Let’s pray together: Lord, when we need healing, may we remember Your Cure: to come to You, to act “as if,” and to return to give thanks to God, so that we may never forget the saving knowledge that because you love us eternally, we are so much more than our human nature. Amen.
Synopsis:Like the dishonest manager, the Christian church has squandered the master’s wealth to enrich themselves instead of engaging in proper stewardship by helping those in need. We corrupt stewards deserve to be dismissed, so we need to act fast to make friends by using those hoarded riches to identify and help those in need.
I’d like to begin today’s sermon with a pertinent story from Reader’s Digest. A traveler, between flights at an airport, went to a lounge and bought a small package of cookies. Then she sat down and began reading a newspaper. Gradually, she became aware of a rustling noise. From behind her paper, she was flabbergasted to see a neatly dressed man helping himself to her cookies. Not wanting to make a scene, she leaned over and took a cookie herself.
A minute or two passed, and then came more rustling. He was helping himself to another cookie! After a while they came to the end of the package with one cookie left, but she was so angry, she didn’t dare allow herself to say anything. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the man broke the remaining cookie in two, pushed half across to her, ate the other half, and left.
Still fuming sometime later when her flight was announced, the woman opened her handbag to get her ticket. To her shock and embarrassment, there she found her package of unopened cookies!
This story illustrates perfectly the problem we have with sharing. Just as the traveler believed those cookies were hers, we are often of the mindset that what we have is “ours,” and we don’t want to share with others what is “ours.” But it isn’t really ours. It belongs to God, who so graciously shares everything with us, and expects us to do the same with the gifts he has given us.
That’s what today’s scripture reading is all about.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward is one of the most perplexing, if not the most perplexing, of the parables of Jesus. It has been approached in many different ways all generating a variety of meanings and messages, which has been quite an embarrassing and humbling experience for Christian scholars.
Although this parable is not found in Matthew or Mark, most scholars agree that this is an authentic parable of Jesus. Perhaps the writers of Matthew and Mark didn’t include it because it is too shocking and confusing. Shocking and confusing his audiences to make a point was one of Jesus’ specialties.
The wealthy master of a large estate finds out that his steward is squandering his wealth, so he fires the steward. Facing poverty, the steward quickly goes to work to save his own neck before anyone finds out that he’s been fired. He ingratiates himself to his master’s clients by reducing their debt.
But the most astonishing thing of all is that, instead of throwing this guy in jail, the master actually praises him for being so shrewd. So, this parable seems to glorify the actions of this corrupt steward, who looks out for himself at the expense of his master. Why is he made out to be a hero?
Some Christian commentators view the wealthy master as the bad guy, accusing the steward unjustly, and the steward as the hero who makes things right. But this parable is not a commentary on the cruelty of ancient slavery. The steward is guilty as charged. He not only mismanaging his master’s goods; he also embezzled them and cheated his master’s clients.
This parable can be best understood within its first-century Jewish context. Back in Jesus’ time, agriculture was big business, and Jesus’ audience would have understood how it worked. The master owned a lot of land, and his clients were tenant farmers, who paid a portion of their harvest in exchange for the use of the land.
The steward’s job would have involved land leasing, collecting produce, keeping records, receiving income, and paying out disbursements. He probably received a salary as well as commission and gratuities from grateful renters for doing them favors. He occupied a powerful position of authority, basically acting as the POA for the master.
Losing his job, the steward will face poverty, but far worse than that in eastern culture is losing face. He will be put to shame. His prospects were dim, and he knew it. When he falls into the ranks of the poor, he would be not be welcomed among other stewards. He also wouldn’t likely be hired in a similar capacity because news of his dismissal would spread, and he wouldn’t have the money to travel someplace far away.
He realized that he needed to make friends fast, so he acted on behalf of the master before anyone knew he had the authority to do so. Under Mosaic Law, it is illegal for a Jew to charge another Jew interest, but that made commercial transactions unprofitable. So, things like interest and managers’ fees were hidden in the bill, which typically showed only a single charge, usually stated in terms of commodities like oil or wheat.
Scholars believe the steward simply removed these hidden charges from the bill. First, he visited an olive tree farmer, who owed the master 100 jugs of oil. Since the olive oil business was very profitable, the steward’s commission and fees were high – a 50% cut – which he removed from the bill.
Next, he visited a wheat farmer. Wheat being not nearly as profitable as oil, the steward removed a smaller cut of 20% from his bill. We can conclude that he continued applying these discounts for many more farmers over the course of the rest of the day.
Some scholars surmise that the discounts could have equaled around $38,000.00. That’s a lot of money even today. So, we can begin to imagine just how wealthy the master was. The actions of the steward cost the master dearly, but he obviously valued the steward’s shrewdness more than the money he lost, which reveals his kind and generous nature.
When we keep in mind the importance of saving face in eastern culture, this parable makes more sense. Both the steward and the master wish to avoid shame. The steward will be loved because of his actions on behalf of the generous master, who has no choice but to play along with what the steward has done if he wants to save face.
We can imagine that the master’s tenet farmers were all rejoicing the master’s generosity across his entire land. Now, imagine if the master went back to them all and said, “Sorry, it was all a mistake. The steward had been fired and therefore the agreements he made with you are null and void.” The tenet farmers would become very angry and curse him for his stinginess.
Instead, the master decides to keep silent, accepting the praise he is being giving while allowing the steward to bask in the favor he has so shrewdly earned. Really, that was his best option. And the master was highly noble; he didn’t appear to be flustered by it. In fact, he was quite impressed.
Now, the clue to the main point of this parable can be found in verse 8, which reads, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
What does he mean?
The “children of the light” was what the Essenes called themselves. To them, everyone else was a “child of the darkness.” The Essenes made the people within their communities pledge to hate the children of the darkness and limit interactions with them.
The Essenes also required the members of their community to relinquish all their assets to the community. They called their money the “mammon of righteousness” and all other money the “wealth of unrighteousness.” Financial transactions were forbidden except for simple cash transactions.
Jesus along with many rabbis of the second temple period believed that people were more valuable than money. Financial resources should be put to work for social reform that benefits all. In the pursuit of God kingdom, money should be used to help people, a tool for assisting those in need, not hording it exclusively for oneself or for one’s own community of believers.
But the Essenes created a community of strong sectarian hatred which left no room for charity, a highly-prized Jewish value. In Jesus’ opinion, like the corrupt steward, the Essenes were wasting God’s gifts by hoarding money to enrich themselves. God, our benevolent and just master, would not be pleased.
But what if the Essenes changed their behavior, and started using their wealth to help anyone in need? Then, they’d be behaving properly. Then, the Lord would be pleased because that’s how He expects us to use the resources he has given us. To share His love and make friends.
Life is about investing in relationships.
In verse 10, Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” In Judaism, the steward’s dishonest behavior demonstrates the behavior of those who fail to use the gifts God has given them to help those in need.
Jesus and the rabbis rejected Essene separatism and bigotry. They also rejected the Essene doctrine of double-predestination: the idea that God has already determined or predestined both the individuals who would be saved and those who would be eternally damned. Jesus emphasized God’s love for the outsider while their attitude was that everyone outside their circle could “go to hell.”
But there is hope for the Essenes and those like them. This parable also illuminates God’s grace. The parable is funny because the steward outwits the master, but all the people were blessed by his actions, and the master was praised for his noble generosity. The point is that God forgives us, and since God owns everything there is, our generous actions on his behalf doesn’t bankrupt Him at all. It glorifies Him.
Jesus praises the behavior of those who engaged in both business and charity with everyone, calling them the “children of this age.” They did not judge others in the way the Essenes did, separating people into sheep and goats according to their own beliefs, and then using their own judgments to justify treating them with contempt.
Followers of Jesus must reach outside their own communities and self-righteous prejudices. Jesus teaches us through this parable that it is through our non-sectarian interaction with others that we can be made aware of and meet needs, and it is through our non-sectarian generosity that we can win friends, extend God’s grace to others, and glorify Him.
What does this parable have to teach us today?
Well, it’s clear what Jesus is NOT saying. He’s not saying that it is okay to be a con artist or to manipulate events to benefit us at the expense of others. It’s never okay to behave like that even if it’s in the service of God’s Kingdom. Those who use this parable to justify underhanded methods are fooling themselves if they think the Lord approves of such behavior.
In this parable, Jesus compares side-by-side improper and proper use of the resources God has given us. Money is power, and it can be used for evil or for good. Unlike the Essenes, Jesus didn’t view money as something that defiles someone on contact, but he did acknowledge the fact that nothing has the potential to corrupt the heart more than money.
This is why Jesus said, in Matthew 19:24, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.”
Many people are of the mentality that they are “entitled” to do what they want with their resources because they “earned” them – so much so that they would rather let an unused asset rust in the garage rather than giving it away to some less fortunate stranger who could use it.
But that idea is a human one, not God’s. God is our master, and we are the managers on his land. As far as God is concerned, we aren’t “entitled” to anything because we didn’t “earn” anything. Everything we have is His property, which he shares with us. We are expected to share in return.
So, in order to be shrewd in this day and age, we need to be careful how we use money. Are we using it only to enrich ourselves, or are we using to make friends thereby cultivating love, which is the most valuable commodity in the Kingdom of God?
It’s also clear from this parable that Jesus rejected the creation of sectarian communities of wealth. Unfortunately, a lot of Christian churches have become just that. They use their financial resources mostly to help themselves, some of them convinced that this is justified because they are saved and everyone else is going to hell.
Rather than using money to attract people to the church, the Christian church in general has alienated people from the church. Rather than making friends, the Christian church in general has made lots of enemies – both externally and internally. The Christian Church deserves to be dismissed as God’s stewards because we have perpetuated suffering in the world instead of putting an end to it.
So, like the unfaithful steward, the Christian church needs to think fast about our future security. What are we going to do? How are we going to make friends and save face? To answer these questions right and save our necks, we need a completely different mindset from the one that got us into this mess.
In my opinion, we can start by remembering Jesus’ words, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It is the same with the church. It was meant to serve people, not the other way around.
Life is not about accumulating wealth for ourselves and our small circle; it’s about using our wealth to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition by recognizing and meeting people’s needs. Because in God’s Kingdom, no one is hungry, no one is thirsty, and no one is homeless. There is no suffering or sadness. To use our resources to make this world a reality is what faithful stewardship is all about.
Let’s pray together:
Gracious and loving God, we understand that you call us to be the stewards of Your abundance, the caretakers of all you have entrusted to us. Help us always to use your gifts wisely and teach us to share them generously. May our faithful stewardship bear witness to the love of Christ in our lives. AMEN.
Inrig, Gary. The Parables: Understanding What Jesus Meant. Our Daily Bread Publishing, Kindle Edition, 1991.
Synopsis:Christ is our real name. It is our eternal name. It is the name we should love the most. When we love our family, religious, gender, racial, or political name more, we separate ourselves from the Body of Christ.
Imagine that I suddenly became a very popular preacher and a huge crowd of people just walked into this church all wanting to become Christians and join this church. You’d all be thrilled, wouldn’t you?
Now, imagine if I would say to them, “Before you all decide to join us, you should know the membership requirements. You must hate your family, and your life, and be willing to face an agonizing death.”
You probably wouldn’t be too happy with me for that less-than-encouraging “welcome” speech. Most if not all of them would most likely turn around and walk right out the door. But that’s essentially the speech Jesus gave the crowd in our scripture reading for today.
A large crowd was following Jesus because was a very popular preacher. People held high expectations of him – mostly political ones. Maybe they wanted to fight in the revolt they thought he was starting. Maybe they wanted to be a member of the court they thought he would establish as king. Or maybe they were just groupies who wanted to get to know the famous guy.
Jesus knew that most of them were following him for all the wrong reasons. So, he decided to use his powerful way with words to smack them all upside the head.
I’m sure he got their attention. Hearing his words two thousand years ago, the crowd would have been like, “What? Wait a minute … didn’t the prophet Malachi write that the Messiah ‘will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents …?’ And reading them today, we might be like, “What? Didn’t Jesus tell us to love one another – even our enemies?”
The problem with us understanding this passage is with the word “hate.” If your favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate, and someone buys you a vanilla ice cream cone, chances are you’ll eat it. You’d say, “Thanks!” and you’d enjoy it, but not as much as you would have enjoyed a chocolate ice cream cone.
But if you were from Biblical times, you might say, “I love chocolate, but I hate vanilla. Then, you’d start chowing down on the vanilla cone because it’s not that you despise vanilla. It’s just not your favorite. That’s how the word “hate” is used in the Bible.
For example, in Genesis chapter 29, there is the story of Jacob, Rachel, and LAY-ah. Jacob was in love with Rachel, but on his wedding night, Laban tricked him into sleeping with his eldest daughter, LAY-ah. Eventually, Rachel became Jacob’s second wife.
In verses 31, the Lord opened LAY-ah’s womb and left Rachel barren because “the Lord saw that LAY-ah was unloved.” After naming Jacob’s first son Reuben (“behold a son”), LAY-ah said in verse 32, “because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” After naming her second son Simeon (“listening”), LAY-ah said in verse 33, “because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.”
So, in this passage, as in other passages in the Bible that use the word “hate,” its meaning is really “to love less.” So, we can translate “Jacob hated LAY-ah but loved Rachel” to mean “Jacob loved Rachel more than LAY-ah.” We can confidently say that Jacob didn’t despise LAY-ah. If he did, we doubt she would have given birth to his six sons and one daughter.
Jesus is telling the crowd that anyone who loves their family more is not worthy to be his disciple. To understand the full impact of Jesus’ words, we need to understand the role of family in Jewish culture.
In Jesus’ time and culture and in many eastern cultures even to this day, the people exist as a collective unit. They don’t see themselves as individuals. They see themselves as part of an extended family, or clan, and their fate is entirely dependent on the fate of their clan. Their lives revolve around their clan. Their clan is essentially their lifeline.
In these cultures, to shame your family would cost you dearly. It could cause you to be disowned by your immediate family and expelled from your clan. You would then be cut off from any support, which would make life very difficult. It’s doubtful that another clan would even take you in because of the shame you carry with you.
We Americans are strongly individualistic – and capitalist. In our society, industry has taken over much of the support extended families once provided, so it’s not unusual for Americans to shame or even shun their families.
When we introduce ourselves, we typically use our first and last name, but next comes our occupation. In fact, the first question people typically ask us after we tell them our name is, “So – what do you do for a living?”
American identity tends to be wrapped around work more than the family name. Most people identify more with their occupations and businesses, so they don’t worry as much about shaming their families as shaming their employers or shareholders.
So, as Americans, if we’re having a hard time feeling the full impact of Jesus’ words here, imagine him saying, “He who comes to me and does not hate his paycheck, his pension, his profits, his investments, his 401K; yes, and even his retirement plans, is not fit to be my disciple.”
As a Jew, Jesus probably introduced himself by saying, “I am Jeshua bar Joseph of the tribe of Judah.” Whatever Jesus did was a reflection not only on him but also on his parents and on his entire tribe. His honor equaled their honor; his shame – their shame.
Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, and everyone knew that the Messiah was prophesied to come from the tribe of Judah. Everyone from that tribe, including some of the members of Jesus’ immediate family, expected Jesus to glorify them.
But it wasn’t Jesus’ mission to glorify the tribe of Judah. It was his mission to glorify God. Now, we can clearly see that Jesus didn’t despise his family, but that he did “hate” them in a biblical sense by not loving the name of Judah more than the name of Christ.
He expects the same level of commitment from his disciples.
The name of Christ is our real name. It is our eternal name. Our family name and other names we carry such as our religious name, gender name, racial or cultural name, and political name, stick to us for only as long as we walk the earth in this life, and in the context of eternity, that’s the blink of an eye.
If we love any of these worldly names more than the name of Christ, then we’re not following the Lord, and sooner or later, that truth will be made painfully obvious.
Jesus gives the example of a man who proposed to build a tower, but he never counted the cost, so his tower remained unfinished. Rather than bringing him glory, the unfinished tower brings him nothing but shame, a perpetual monument to wasted time and money.
That example was directed toward the people who were following him for fame and fortune. Those who follow the Lord to bring glory and honor to their own name end up ruined and ridiculed.
Jesus gives us another example of a king who goes to war against another king, without calculating whether he has the manpower to win. Because he was sorely outnumbered, he had to surrender, placing himself and his people entirely at the enemy’s mercy because of his foolishness.
That example was directed toward the people who were following him for political power. Those who follow the Lord for political power end up enslaved by our worst enemy, the human ego, and anyone who follow them marches right into slavery with them.
Our scripture reading ends with Jesus saying, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Most people will interpret this verse literally, that we must give up all our material possession to be the Lord’s disciple. But given the context of the passage, I think he’s taking aim at something bigger than just our material “stuff.”
I think he’s taking aim at our psychological stuff. The names we cling to. Our identity baggage. We need to let go of these “possessions” to be joined with Christ.
What does this scripture reading have to say to us today? Well, we can certainly relate. Since the advent of the Christian church, families have been torn apart because someone chose to love the name of Christ more than their religious name.
In her book Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Lois Tverberg tells the story of enjoying a lovely dinner with Christian friends who lived in Jerusalem. They had invited another guest to dinner – a man who was active in their congregation and who looked obviously Jewish.
Lois said to the man, “So, what did your family say when you told them you had become a Christian?” An awkward silence followed, and her friend changed the subject. Later her friend explained that when he told his parents about his faith in Christ, his father “sat shiva” for seven days. This is the ritual Jewish people observe to mourn the death of a loved one. As far as his father was concerned, his son was dead.
The same religious name attachment happens within the Christian faith. I remember Tabatha telling me a story about her childhood. She started attending an after-school church youth group with a friend of hers. Soon, the minister was knocking on the door of her house and asking her parents to join their church.
Now, Tabatha’s parents never went to church, but this incident scared her father so much that he started faithfully taking Tabatha to church – but to the Catholic church – because as far as he was concerned, his family was Catholic, doggonit. God forbid his daughter become a Baptist.
When we love our religious name more than we love the name of Christ, we are not fit to be the Lord’s disciples. But there are many people out there today who do not have a religious name because they are not religious people. There’s no problem with them, right?
Well, I wish religious names were the only names people love more than the name of Christ, but people also love their racial name, and their gender name, and their sexual orientation name, and their political name, and I could go on and on and on.
It’s not that the Lord is excluding these people. Truly, every human being is the Christ wearing a human costume. But when we love other names more, we exclude ourselves. This wrong attitude separates us from the body of Christ. We separate ourselves from love, and that leads us into the enemy’s territory.
It’s a terrible consequence. Many families have been torn apart when a family member loves the name of Christ more than any other name the family holds dear. Any name more beloved than the name of Christ will destroy family unity. It takes the fabric of family unity and tears it into pieces.
At that point, love is gone and animosity takes its place.
Perhaps now, the meaning of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34-39 are clear: He said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Names tear the fabric of any unity into pieces. It not only tears into pieces the fabric of a family. It also tears the fabric of a community. The fabric of a nation. The fabric of a world. Jesus came to heal the illusion of separation these names create. He came to remind us of the true name we all share.
Certainly, names are not fundamentally bad. We need them to a certain extent to organize our lives as human beings. The problem is when we love them more than our true name. When we let them tell us who we are instead of letting God tell us who we are.
Jesus was headed for the cross. He was willing to pay a terrible price for the Name of Christ. He wanted the people following him to be fully aware that they would have to carry a cross too. At the top of Jesus’ cross, the soldiers nailed a name: King of the Jews. This was the name Jesus hated, this was the life Jesus hated, and he was willing to face an agonizing death to glorify his True Name.
Thankfully, chances are that we won’t have to face the kind of agonizing physical death Jesus faced, but we must be willing to face a psychological death. Depending on how much we love our other names, it might be agonizing. We can see the agony in the eyes of those who are desperately clinging to their beloved names and defending them at all costs.
We can have compassion for them in their suffering but also gratitude that we are saved from this torment. We have the peace of the Lord because we are willing for the glory of our True Name to nail all our other names at the top of our cross and die to those names.
Let’s pray together:
Lord, we love the name of Christ more than any other name, and we are willing to die to any other name. Give us the courage to stand for the name of Christ in these times and compassion for those who are suffering. AMEN.
Synopsis: Taking our religion seriously is a good thing, but there is such a thing as taking it too seriously. Those in positions of power who take their religion too seriously make up cruel rules and enact cruel enforcement policies designed to exclude and persecute those who do not follow them. Jesus criticized people like this for their hypocrisy in his time and culture … and so should we.
In August of 2004, a headline in the Warren Times inquired, “Wheat Intolerance Invalidates Girl’s First Communion?” In the article, an 8-year-old who suffers from a rare digestive disorder and cannot eat wheat had her first communion invalidated by the Catholic church because the wafer contained no wheat, which violates Roman Catholic Doctrine.
The girl’s mother was pushing the Diocese of Trenton and the Vatican to make an exception, arguing that her daughter’s condition should not exclude her from the sacrament, but the Catholic church was reluctant to change the rule that the wafers must contain some unleavened wheat.
Within our religious institutions, as with our institutions in general, people in positions of authority struggle with appropriate limits and enforcement of standards. What exceptions should be allowed? Where do we draw the line? What consequences should be imposed for failing to meet standards?
That’s what today’s scripture reading is all about. Just like extreme sports, extreme religion can be quite exhilarating, but also very dangerous, and the more deeply a person gets into it, the more dangerous it becomes for him or her and for everyone within their sphere of influence.
Let’s take a look at the context around our scripture reading for today. It follows on the heels of several related incidents where Jesus spars with the Pharisees and teachers of the law over the enforcement of traditional standards.
In chapter eleven, Jesus was teaching at the synagogue, and he was invited to come inside to dine with a Pharisee. As soon as he started eating, he was criticized for not engaging in the proper hand-washing ritual before the meal.
Jesus responded by denouncing the Pharisees and teachers of the law in no uncertain terms, calling them hypocrites, who clean the cup on the outside while leaving the inside filthy dirty. In other words, they were more concerned with ritual defilement than with ethical defilement.
Why didn’t Jesus wash his hands before eating? Isn’t that a hygiene thing? I mean, shouldn’t we all wash our hands before eating?
Actually, it wasn’t a hygiene thing. It was one of the Traditions of the Elders – a collection of Jewish practices and understandings that had grown over the years but were not found in Torah. They were also interpreted in a variety of ways. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, these traditions had become burdensome and confusing as well as being out-of-touch with the concerns of the times.
The Pharisees created these traditions as a way to keep the Jewish people in line. They sometimes called them a “fence” around Torah Law, believing that if people kept these small traditional practices, they would be more likely to follow Torah law. Unfortunately, these practices became more important to them than the law itself.
So, it wasn’t that Jesus resented being told to wash his hands before dinner. The fact that the Pharisees placed more importance on human traditions than on God’s laws made Jesus very grumpy. He taught that when the heart is corrupt, human-made laws can still be followed, but God’s laws cannot.
Now we come to our scripture reading. After this incident, Jesus is back at the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath. He routinely attended worship at synagogues, and he was often invited to teach.
A woman was there who had been crippled for eighteen years. She was bent over, unable to straighten herself up. We can imagine living like that would put a strain on her internal organs as well as on her everyday life and relationships. Verse eleven suggests that her condition was caused by a demon, but Jesus didn’t treat her condition like a demonic possession.
It’s interesting that Jesus called her to him. Usually, he healed someone after they demonstrated their faith in some way and/or expressed a desire to be healed. She didn’t ask to be healed; she was simply attending synagogue like everyone else. He must have sensed that this woman had great faith and wanted to be healed. So, he placed his hands on her, and she was immediately healed.
The fact that Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath outrages the leader of the synagogue. He doesn’t directly reprimand Jesus; he does so indirectly by speaking to the people. My guess is that he has heard stories and knows better than to verbally spar with Jesus. He just wants to make it clear that Jesus violated Torah Law by healing this woman.
In his opinion, Jesus violated the Fourth Commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. Just as God spent six days creating the world and rested on the seventh, so we should follow His example. Jews are not permitted to work on the Sabbath, and they must also give their servants and animals the day off.
Let’s take a closer look at Jewish Sabbath laws so that we can get a better grasp of them and what they mean to the Jewish people. In 167 B.C., almost two centuries before Jesus was born, Antiochus’ army tried to put a stop to sacrifices at the Temple. The people of Jerusalem revolted and then fled to the desert, but their hiding place was soon discovered by the pursuing soldiers.
The soldiers surrounded the Jews and demanded they surrender. The Jews didn’t give in, but they refused to fight because it was the Sabbath. They wouldn’t even block the entrances to their caves. As a result, one thousand men, women, and children died without resistance.
That gives us an idea of the intensity of the Jews’ conviction that the Sabbath should not be violated. Anyone who unintentionally violated the Sabbath was required to pay a heavy sin offering. Anyone who intentionally violated the Sabbath would be stoned to death.
By the time Jesus was born, the Jews’ conviction around Sabbath Laws had only become stronger. Because of the pagan influences all around them, the Pharisees had taken it upon themselves to keep the Jewish faith pure, and that is why they created the “Traditions of the Elders.”
Now, the problem is that what actually constitutes “work” is an ongoing debate to this very day. It was never clearly defined. We can imagine what the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the “fence makers,” did with this vague area of the law.
Obvious work was banned, but then anything remotely related to obvious work was also banned. For example, a farmer couldn’t plow his field on the Sabbath. Sounds reasonable, right? But then they ruled that no one could drag a chair across the ground because that would create a furrow which is related to plowing.
A Jew could not carry a heavy load on the Sabbath. Sounds reasonable too. But then they decided that no one could wear an extra piece of clothing because that was somehow related to carrying a heavy load.
One dilemma that caused a lot of discussion was what a Jew could do if their house caught on fire on the Sabbath. The Pharisees ruled that a Jew could save only clothing, wearing one piece at a time, but it had to be taken off before going back into the burning house to save another garment. Can you imagine the spectacle that would be?
So, what the leader of the synagogue was essentially saying, “Look people, you have six days out of the week where you can be healed. Woman, you’ve been dealing with this illness for eighteen years, surely you could have waited one more day to keep the Sabbath holy.” Sounds reasonable, right?
The synagogue leader didn’t get away with his indirect criticism. Jesus immediately calls him out on his hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of all those who share his mindset about the Sabbath. They believe it is fine to unbind stable animals on the Sabbath to lead them to water, but it is a violation to unbind this human being, their sister in the faith, who has been bound by her disability for eighteen years?
Like many religious leaders of Jesus’ day and even today, the synagogue leader couldn’t see the forest for the trees. He was so focused on all the trifling rules that had been built up around the law that he lost sight of the main point. His focus on the letter of the law blinded him to the spirit of the law.
His viewpoint was not reasonable; it was cruel. It lacked compassion. The Torah is supposed to reveal to us the holiness of God, and since compassion is one of God’s traits, acts of compassion extended toward others are among the holiest we could do.
Since the time of Jesus, there have been two schools of Pharisaic thought: the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The main difference between the two schools is that the School of Shammai was more restrictive in its interpretation of Torah Law, and the School of Hillel was more lenient.
For example, if it is unknown whether a woman’s husband is alive or dead, Hillel ruled that the woman could remarry with even indirect evidence of the husband’s death, but Shammai ruled that witnesses must come forth with direct testimony before she was permitted to remarry. If no witnesses came forth, a woman would be forced to live a widow’s life for the rest of her life. Without a husband to support her, hers would be a very difficult life indeed.
Hillel recognized the cruelty of this. He was more concerned for the welfare of others than with strict interpretations of the law. His views were more popular and usually chosen by the Sanhedrin. But over time, the unity of these two schools began to fracture and the unity of the Jewish people along with it.
The disputes between the two schools started with only a few minor things, but ultimately, they had grown so far apart in their interpretations that it was as if two different Torahs were being taught, and the mutual respect there once was between the two schools had morphed into mutual animosity.
There were many laws that lacked compassion, and those from the school of Shammai often instigated severe punishments for those who challenged them – including Jesus. They were put to shame on this day, and the crowd rejoiced. The crowd was made up of ordinary people who could relate to the woman who had suffered for so long. They had all been suffering for a long time under the rigid authority of the Romans, and some of their own people were adding to the burden with their own brand of it.
So, what can we learn from this scripture reading today? How does it relate to our times? I believe we have a similar problem in today’s world. Within our Christian institutions, there has always been a conflict between the more restrictive ones and the less restrictive ones.
Lately, it seems that there are two totally different Bibles being taught and two totally different stories about Jesus being told. Just as in Jesus’ time and culture, Christian unity has fractured, and there isn’t much mutual respect remaining between the opposing sides.
Why does religion become oppressive? Well, people take religion very seriously. It’s a deeply-cherished part of our identity. Think of how all-encompassing your Christian identity is. It touches every aspect of who you are. So how people define Christianity and view Christians is important to us.
But as with all things in life, we need a proper balance. It’s good to take religion seriously, but there is such a thing as taking it too seriously. Religion is good. Religiosity is not good because it creates repressive religious systems.
In Mark 2:27, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Rules are intended to serve us, not the other way around. The Sabbath was meant to remind us to rest, not to burden us. What was meant to be a reminder of the nature of our compassionate God has been corrupted with cruel rules by those who take religion way too seriously.
Communion was meant to remind us of the love of God our Father, of our unity in Christ, of our belonging in the family of God. It has been corrupted with cruel rules by those who take religion way too seriously.
The Bible was written to guide our understanding about the nature of God and who we are in Christ. It has been corrupted, used to create cruel “fences” meant to exclude others at best and persecute them at worst, by those who take religion way too seriously.
I believe that Christians who practice extreme Christianity have Christ more in their heads than in their hearts. For them, Christianity is all about beliefs, not action. For them, the word “Christian” is another identity that must be properly defined and defended. Their perspective is very limited – so is their life and the life they wish to force on others.
Like the prodigal son’s older brother, they make slaves of themselves, imagining God to be like an employer whose orders they must follow, orders they themselves make up. Then they expect special privileges based on their perceived superiority. Just like the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Jesus’ time, if they are in positions of power, they set up systems to oppress those who don’t follow their rules.
But if we have Christ in our hearts, we know that Christ is unlimited and therefore undefined. When it comes to our true nature, we need no definitions. Christ knows who Christ is. We’re the ones who have forgotten who we are, and we rely on Christ, not human definitions, to tell us who we are.
Before Jesus healed the crippled woman at the synagogue, all she could see was dirt and other people’s feet because she was bent over and couldn’t straighten herself out. Her perspective was bound like this for eighteen years. It was extremely limited.
Extreme religion does the same thing to people’s perspective of God, themselves, others, and the world. In addition to freeing the woman, Jesus was also trying to free the Pharisees and teachers of the law from their limited perspective and anyone today who suffers because they take religion to the extreme.
We are not called to take our religion to the extreme. We are called to take our religion to the streets. We are not called to sit in a pew on Sunday mornings, listen to someone talk about Jesus, and pass judgment on the rest of the world. We are called to go out into the world every day of our lives and extend love and compassion to those in need.
With all the noise in today’s world made by those who have more Christ in their heads, it can be tempting to doubt what we know to be true in our hearts. In this time of spiritual warfare, it is therefore important to wear your spiritual armor.
As Saint Paul advised the Ephesians in his letter to them chapter 6, verses 13-17:
“… Take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
And as for us, the Word of God is not some book outside of us; it is the Christ within us. Now is the time for all of us to get Christ out of our heads and into our hearts and start LIVING as the Christ. Now is the time to stop WAITING for the second coming of Christ and start BEING the second coming of Christ.
Let’s pray together: Lord, thank you for setting us free from slavery to human rules and traditions with your simple gospel of love for one another. Help us to shine the light of God’s love and compassion as we deal with people suffering from extreme religious views and those harmed by them. AMEN.
Synopsis:In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus showcases three mistaken viewpoints that we can hold about our Heavenly Father and how these bad attitudes cause trouble for us and the entire Family of God.
In writing sermons lately, I noticed that the Parable of the Prodigal Son kept coming to mind. I remembered that I once preached a sermon about this parable called “the Father’s Heart,” so I looked into my sermon archives, and I found it in a folder labeled April 3, 2016. That was a long time ago. I figured Spirit was calling me to revisit this parable.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is my favorite parable. I love it because the three characters in the parable, the father, the prodigal son, and the older son, are so rich. You can focus an entire sermon on either of them.
In my sermon back in 2016, I focused on the father and how through his character, Jesus revealed to his audience what our Heavenly Father is truly like. Our Father’s heart is filled with nothing but compassion and unconditional love for his children.
For today’s sermon, I’d like to focus on the two sons, how they view their father, and how these viewpoints caused trouble for them and the rest of the family. But first, let’s review the context of this parable.
Jesus told parables for a specific reason: to make a point. If we ignore the context in which they are told, we can easily miss the point. In the context of this parable, Jesus tells three parables in response to the grumblings of the Pharisees that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Who are these “sinners” coming to listen to Jesus? They are identified in verse 1 as “tax collectors and other sinners.” It’s interesting how tax collectors are grouped with sinners. We don’t like paying taxes in today’s world either, but most of us don’t consider tax collectors “sinners” for simply doing their jobs. In Jesus’ time, however, it was a bit more complicated.
The Jews despised tax collectors. There were several reasons for this. Tax collectors were fellow Jews collecting taxes for the Roman oppressors, so they were considered traitors. Even worse, they often collected more taxes than was owed and pocketed the extra. That scheme made them very wealthy, which the lower-class Jews resented since it was their stolen hard-earned money that made the tax collectors so wealthy.
The Pharisees’ term “other sinners” referred to ordinary non-religious Jews. Religious Jews called them “am h’aretz,” which can be translated as “the people of the land.” Because these non-religious Jews didn’t observe Torah Law, pious Jews like the Pharisees considered them unclean and therefore unworthy of their company.
The Pharisees were people who studied and dutifully observed Torah law, and while the am h’aretz were not “pious” in their observance of Torah Law, they were obviously spiritual people. They wanted to know more about their Heavenly Father; otherwise, they would not have come to listen to Jesus speak.
The parable begins with the younger son asking his father to give him his share of the estate. Many people don’t realize the audacity of this request. In essence, he’s saying, “You’re not dying fast enough for me dad, so give me my inheritance … now.” Imagine the pain you’d feel if the child you nurtured from birth and dearly love said this to you.
To Jesus’ audience, this would have been a shocking offense – so appalling that many listeners would probably have considered it unforgivable. But the father grants his son’s request, making himself completely vulnerable. His future security is now divided in half. Three days later, half of his security says, “See ya!”
We read that the younger son “gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country.” He probably sold anything he couldn’t take with him – all his fixed assets. The son is making it clear that he intends to sever all ties to his father.
Jesus’ audience would have interpreted the “distant country” as the land of the gentiles. So, the son was not only leaving his father – but also his father’s god – to dwell in a land of pagan values and morals. There, we read that he “squandered his property in dissolute living.”
Bad choices lead to bad consequences, and the ones the young man suffers are pretty rough. Eventually, he runs out of money, and to make matters worse, a famine begins. A local man hires him to feed pigs, a totally degrading job especially for a proud Jew.
Food was so scarce that his employer wouldn’t even let him to eat the pig’s food. I know that seems cruel, but in a famine, a pig is more valuable because it is a source of food.
The Pharisees would have loved for Jesus’ story to end leaving the disobedient son in the pigpen, but Jesus, our great redeemer, couldn’t just leave him there, unredeemed.
So, the young man comes to his senses. He realizes that even his father’s hired men have food to spare, and here he is, starving to death. He probably thought, “How can I go back to my father after what I have done?”
Visions of an angry father danced around in his head: a father angry over his son’s insolence, angry over having to sell all he owned while he still lived, angry over half of his security walking away with his son, angry over the shame of having a son who chose a life of debauchery.
If he were his father, he’d sure feel that way, he figures. He concludes that his father will never accept him back as a son because he has broken the father-son relationship beyond repair. He believes there is no way that his father could ever forgive him for what he has done, so he assumes that his father will accept him back but as nothing more than a hired hand.
He finds out that he doesn’t know his father at all.
Instead of a father repulsed by the sight of him, he discovers a father running toward him, as if he had been searching for him a long time. Instead of an angry and judgmental father, he discovers a father full of compassion and forgiveness.
Unable to comprehend such unconditional love and forgiveness, the son begins his well-rehearsed speech. He doesn’t get to finish his speech because his father interrupts him by ordering his servants to dress him with garments and jewelry that reflect his status – not as a hired hand, but as a son.
To celebrate the return of his son, the father throws a party. The older son hears all the commotion and finds out what’s going on from one of the servants. He then becomes angry and refuses to join the celebration.
So, we have these two sons in this parable: the prodigal son and the older son.
We can probably figure out who they symbolize. The prodigal son is the am h’aretz, the people of the land. They haven’t followed Torah law as meticulously as the Pharisees. Some may have been trying their best to follow as many of them as they could. Others may have not tried at all. Like the prodigal son, they were living lives of debauchery. I’m sure all of them felt not worthy enough to be called children of God.
But there they are, gathered around to hear Jesus. Like the prodigal son, they had come to their senses. They want to return home, but they don’t expect much. They are humble and contrite, and they are warmly received by the Messiah, the Son of God. And through his parable, they learn that they didn’t know their father at all.
The older son is the Pharisees. The older son expected his father to impose some form of punishment on his younger brother. And he felt entitled to some kind of reward for his allegiance to his own father. What did he expect? A longevity payment?
The father, instead of becoming enraged by the older son’s selfishness and disrespect, tries to reason with him: “My son, how can I give you more than everything, and how can I not rejoice and be glad that my son has returned?”
The older son refers to his prodigal brother as “this son of yours” instead of as “my brother.” Obviously, he hates his brother. Why would he hate his brother for coming home? Well, the father welcomed his prodigal brother back with open arms, restored his status as a son, and threw a party for him. What does that say about the older son’s perceived superior status?
What does this parable have to say to us today? I think it says, “Beware of how we view our Heavenly Father.” There are a few different viewpoints revealed in this parable.
At first, the prodigal son viewed his father as someone he could use to satisfy his selfish desires. He knew his father owed him an inheritance, so he demanded it. Then, he walked away with half of the family’s assets, assets that were supposed to be used to support the entire family. He wasted them on pleasures and treasures for himself.
Many Christians view God this way. They believe, “God owes me, so I’m going to demand whatever I want and expect to get it whether it’s His Will or not, and I don’t care who it hurts.” It doesn’t matter if this attitude is preached from a pulpit in a church. It is an attempt to spiritualize greed, and greed hurts the entire family of God.
Like the prodigal son, they will learn that their pursuit of pleasures and treasures does nothing for them but to leave them in a state of spiritual bankruptcy.
After the prodigal son realized he had sinned, he viewed his father as angry and vengeful. Many view God this way also. Like the am h’aretz, some fall away from God because they can’t follow the rules well enough to feel worthy. And some fall away because they’ve done some really bad things – things for which they think they can never be forgiven.
Hopefully, like the prodigal son, they will come to their senses, find the courage to return home, and find out the truth about our Heavenly Father’s compassion and unconditional love.
The older son viewed his father like an employer. Listen to what he said, “‘…For all these years, I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command. He resents his father so much that he feels like nothing more than a slave who follows orders. It’s obvious that he doesn’t really love his father. He just wants to get paid.
He’s the son who is more like a hired hand – but by his own choice because of his bad attitude.
Many Christians with a legalistic faith view God in this way. To them, God is just the CEO of a major corporation, and we’re all just jockeying for positions on the corporate ladder. They don’t know God any better than the prodigals. In fact, their attitude might just be landing them in a place even farther away from God.
Notice that in the parable, the older son never comes to his senses. In the story, Jesus just leaves him there sulking, standing outside looking in, just as the Pharisees were on that day – sulking, because Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We can say that there is a fourth view of the father that isn’t really portrayed in the parable. But imagine how the prodigal son felt after his father so warmly welcomed him home? Can you imagine the enormity of gratitude the prodigal son felt, and the sincere desire to serve his father because the prodigal son loved him with a pure heart, and he loved his father with a pure heart because his father loved him that way first. As we read in the apostle John’s first epistle, chapter 4, verses 19-21:“We love because he first loved us.”
The prodigal son’s father taught him to feel worthy not because of anything he has done but because of who he is: his beloved child.
How we view our Heavenly Father matters a great deal. When Jesus prayed to God, he used the word “Abba,” which is Aramaic for “father,” but it’s a more intimate term – like our English word, “daddy.”
So, in this parable, Jesus taught us that it is a mistake to view God like a genie in a bottle. God doesn’t give us everything we want. He does give us everything we need to grow in the direction He wants us to grow. If He doesn’t give us something we want, then receiving it will somehow interfere with our soul’s plan.
It is a mistake to view God like an angry, vengeful judge. God is does not judge us or condemn us. He gave us Free Will, so why would he condemn us for using it? We are free to make our own choices and experience their consequences. That is how we learn to master life, and that’s how God designed it.
It is a mistake to view God like an employer. If we have truly accepted Christ into our hearts, then we have Christ to define sin for us. Only those who haven’t accepted the Christ need sin defined because apart from Him, we can’t figure out what sin really is. So, the mind of me deals with that like it deals with everything else it doesn’t know. It pretends to know.
So just like the Pharisees and their “traditions of the elders,” the mind of me makes up sins and ignores real sin. Then it resents God when it doesn’t get the reward it thinks it deserves for “following orders” while violators go unpunished. They stand outside sulking, while their brothers and sisters enjoy the peace, love, and joy that is our inheritance.
The correct perception of God is like a doting daddy. Our Heavenly Father has unlimited compassion and love for us. No matter what we do, God will never stop loving us. In fact, all he wants to do is shower us with presents – with unlimited blessings. That’s why he gave us everything – this entire Creation – to enjoy and share with our brothers and sisters.
God wants us to enjoy life like we would a grand party. In order to do that, we must learn what we need to learn. What is it that we need to learn? We need to learn to love God above all else, to cherish all of life, and to love our brothers and sisters the same way God loves us.
So let us be mindful of how we view our Father so that we can experience the love, peace, and joy God wants for us and set an example for those who are standing outside so that they may choose to view God correctly and join the party.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to embrace a proper view of Our Heavenly Father. Reveal to us any ways in which our perspective is in error so that we can experience the love, peace, and joy that is our inheritance and help our lost brothers and sisters. AMEN.