Why pray? (Luke 11:1-4)

Does prayer “work?”  Surprisingly, prayer remains a vital part of American spirituality.  Several recent studies have shown that—based on survey results—something like one-half to two-thirds of all Americans claim to praying every day.  And that’s independent of their religious affiliation.

I’ve noticed, though—in my own life as much as anywhere—that the urgency of prayer tends to reflect our own circumstances.  When all is well, my tendency is to rest on self-sufficiency.  Why pray?  I got this.  Yet when things go poorly, I am unhappily confronted with my own needy dependence.

I find myself wondering if this is why so many of us have such difficulty asking others to pray for us.  Sure, asking people to pray for a friend or relative—that’s a perfectly “churchy” thing to do.  But pray for ourselves?  There’s a vulnerability there that’s just not comfortable.

When Jesus’ first followers spent time with him on earth, they couldn’t help but be impressed with his devotional life.  Jesus surely enjoyed an intimacy with his Father that attracted the attention of his disciples:

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1)

Now, we should probably note that all Israelites knew what to pray.  They’d been reciting lines from Deuteronomy 6 their whole life (something called the Shema prayer): “Hear, oh Israel: the Lord your God is one.”  But even if God was one, the Jewish community had become fractured by Jesus’ day.  We might imagine that John the Baptist borrowed some spiritual elements from the Essenes—a group of desert hippies he probably drew some inspiration from.

Jesus offers them—and us—something of a model:

And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

 

“Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread,

and forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.

And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:2-4)

Now, some of us may have grown up repeating this until we were able to mouth the words without thinking.  Repetition may be the straightest route to memory, but doesn’t necessarily provoke intimacy.  Jesus’ point was that our prayer lives should be marked and shaped by profound intimacy with God.  Yes; personal requests (such as for provision and forgiveness) are a part of our prayer lives, but it is intimacy with God that allows us to be made complete.  In his recent book on prayer, Tim Keller writes:

“Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change—the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.” (Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, p. 18)

Few things are as valuable as this intimacy.  Prayer is a means to this end.  When I am preoccupied with my own ends, my own fulfillment, my prayer life becomes stunted through selfish, slavish devotion to my own happiness.  But when prayer becomes a means toward relationship, joy flourishes independently of my circumstances.   The clouds roll back.  Wonder reappears.

Jesus’ parables on prayer, therefore, are powerful ways of confronting his hearers with their own attitudes toward prayer.  Join us this Sunday as we explore what Jesus has to teach us on this important subject.

 

 

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The Dark Corner of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

It was a dark time in my life at a certain point in the past. A time when pastoral ministry did not seem to be going well by certain commonly-used measurable standards. A parishioner visited with me to explain exactly how I was a loser and that I should please, please quit and go away. Even if I did not agree with the premise of the argument, it seemed like good advice; and I was glad to do it if only I had any conviction that God wanted me to go pick grapes somewhere else in the vineyard.

That same evening a very distant acquaintance emailed me with an invite to get together later that week, as he was passing through the area. Since he was a seminary prof, our breakfast talk turned to ministry and how it was going at the church. I told him of my recent meeting and said I was thinking maybe I should consider quitting … to which he simply replied, “Have you read my book?”

I did not know he had written a book, but he gave me a copy of it. The big idea metaphor was to talk about spiritually being on the “night shift.” The verbal picture was upon the graveyard shift that exists in many industries. Few people know or care that someone is there at that time, but it is important to the well-being of the organization. There is no glory or praise for those working it.

I worked the night shift in college for several evenings a week. My college was in downtown Philadelphia and I was a security guard who had to man the desk from 12:00 to 6:00 a.m., also making rounds every other hour throughout the building. I could go the entire evening, perhaps only ever seeing one other human being … like a homeless drunk who might be sleeping in the dumpster. I would have to rouse him and force him to move, out of fear the garage truck would pick him up and literally eat him. It was not a glorious job, but it had to be done by someone. The pay at that time was $1.80 per hour.

The premise of the book was to talk about how sometimes in ministry and life we get assigned to the night shift when serving the Lord. We are at corners of the vineyard that are largely unknown and underappreciated. And so are we when we work there. But if the master sends us to such a place, we must go and serve joyfully for the glory of the greater cause.

The past two days I have written about three things not to do when serving God: look at the rewards, be impressed with yourself, and compare yourself with other people and places. So positively today, here is the thing to do: Do look at Christ when serving God. Jesus is our model for serving others.

We should follow the model of Philippians 2, and not just see the great theology that is there, but rather to put the application of the context into practice …

make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Jesus was the ultimate servant who could justly feel despised and rejected. It was in a garden that he felt alone – on the night shift – and cried out to the Father. But he obeyed and humbled himself – to human form, death, the cross. The result was that God therefore God highly exalted him in due time.

So be quick to do anything, anywhere in service for the Lord. We should simply be glad we have been called to be a sheep (and sometimes shepherd) of the Lord’s pasture and a worker in his vineyard. Our first thought, even at down times, is to rejoice that we have been found and employed by the master of masters … thankful that he has called us to serve Him where He has chosen to place us – be it in the pressure-packed public arena of dealing with snipping and snapping sheep, or in a remote corner of the vineyard picking grapes where none see you and few know exists.

We can trust God with the ultimate rewards and recognition. This is the economy of grace.

Extra Pay for Me; Equal Pay for Others (Matthew 20:1-16)

Has there ever been a culture so oriented to counting hours and worrying about pay scales as is our own? Prior to the industrial age and the time clock, this was not particularly the focus as it is today. I know my dad did not count the hours he worked on pappy’s farm, nor did pappy with his father and so on, all the way back to the ancestors in Switzerland. But we are interested in working wages, equal pay, the length of the workday, minimum wages, etc.

I had to laugh at a report I heard last week about the debate circulating on the issue of raising minimum pay for fast food workers, and perhaps my political bias comes through with this. But, the push for raising the pay to something like $15 per hour is that the current lower pay is deemed insufficient to sustain a family. However, the early returns on the research related to tracking this kind of change where it has been made is that those who are now receiving the higher pay are, in some cases, now asking to have their hours cut back. Since they are making more money, they no longer qualify for certain assistance programs and find themselves further behind.

Yes, Americans think a lot about what is fair.

Rather than reprint the passage yet again, recall the main elements of the parable – that workers were hired at various times throughout a 12-hour day, and when the time came to be paid, the latter workers were given the same salary as the early workers negotiated. And when the all-day laborers did not get more, they were offended. They were then chided by the owner who asked why they felt any right to be offended about his use of his own money and his generosity.

Yesterday, we made the application point that we should not look toward rewards for serving God. And today, let us add two more negatives: Don’t look at yourself when serving God, and don’t look at comparing yourself with others when serving God.

Being impressed with oneself and one’s own work is what the Pharisees and the religious leaders did. And though this was not in the immediate context preceding the parable, that background was always nearby and around Christ and the disciples.

The Pharisees and religious leaders just knew they were in really good shape with God – they had to be. They worked really, really hard at it, constantly sizing themselves up, taking the commands of Scripture and writing volumes of legalistic applications of what that looked like, etc. And then with great public fanfare, they lived out those details to the extreme.

We forget that these people were held in high regard by the masses. We see the name “Pharisee” as a bad title – but not so in that day. So they had reasons to believe – both from the mirror and from the riffraff masses of sinners around them, that they were in good standing with God.

In the parable, the morning workers believed themselves to be in a good position also. Seeing the payment of the shorter-termed laborers, they just KNEW they were in for an exceptional payday. After all, they were the ones chosen at the beginning – probably because they were the most gifted and desired workers in the market.

How might we be like this?  We might look back at how long we’ve been in the faith and in church, counting how many years we have tithed and been faithful to serve. Those who are gifted to serve in prominent and powerful ways may believe they are able to do that because of their own smarts and abilities and work. They just know that in all the measurable ways that mark faithfulness in a local church in America, they’ve really done it well and worked at a high level. But don’t look at yourself too highly, as Paul said in Romans 12:3 – For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

And additionally, don’t spend a lot of effort looking around at others in the vineyard. The workers in the parable vineyard did a lot of looking around. There was a lot of work to be done. The owner had to keep getting more workers – perhaps because the first guys were too often too distracted about what others were doing (or not doing) around them!

The first set of laborers were thinking, “I’m 2x better than the guys at noon, 4x better than the guys at 3:00, and 12x better than the guys at 5:00 ….. so my compensation is justly going to be just that much better!”

God, in his wisdom and grace, and on his own schedule and time, calls and places each of us at different places in His vineyard

I confess it is difficult to not look around the vineyard where I work – near and far – and not be affected by seeing what appears to be fruitful harvesting being done by workers who are not truthful about who they are and what they really believe … or others who are applauded by men for their work and verbal skill, when I know it has all been stolen from some other place without attribution. And all along while fussing in my mind about this, I should just be thankful that so much fruit is being harvested for the Kingdom. It is difficult, as it also was with the Apostle Paul, to say, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

We all have our unique calling – the place in the Lord’s vineyard that God has uniquely put us to labor faithfully. We have very different gifts as well. It is not about being prominent or successful in obvious ways; it is about being faithful to God in ways that He alone sees and that He alone rewards in His own way and time.

Questions for thought and discussion groups: Do you find yourself comparing your work for the Lord with others around you?  Does it ever seem to you that you are not getting appropriate credit for what you are doing when seeking to serve God?  Have you ever felt overlooked in serving?  Are there other Scriptures that come to mind about God’s promise to be faithful to remember our service for him?

What’s In It For Me? (Matthew 20:1-16)

There is an old saying that goes something like this: “Working for God may not pay much, but the rewards are out of this world.”

The Bible speaks quite a lot about the reality of eternal rewards and the blessings of God that accrue to people who live faithful lives. In Colossians, Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

As discussed yesterday, our parable of study for this week – The Workers in the Vineyard – was in part set up by a question that Peter had pondered after the sad description of the rich young man, questioning out loud to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Peter was not far from the whole truth when he said they had given up a lot … pretty much everything. And Jesus assured him of a high reward, but there was a troubling tone in the fisherman’s question – an element of serving only for what can be gotten, rather than for the love of the one who made the career of fishing for men possible.

Here again is the parable from Matthew 20 …

20:1 — “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

At first glance, especially to the American mind that is steeped in labor practice fairness with phrases like “equal pay for equal work,” it seems terribly unfair and unjust.

Let me give you four summary statements about what can be taken from his parable – three things to not do, followed by one big thing to do. So today, here is the first “don’t.”

Don’t look toward rewards for serving God.

To frame it as a question, “What is the true nature of your motivation for following Christ and serving God?

We are troubled by people who only ever appear to be involved in an activity simply because of how much they can personally gain from it. To many of us who are professional sports fans, it drives us a bit crazy to see some of our favorite players take free agent contracts somewhere else because of dollars – when in one year they make more than any of us will make in a lifetime. There is no purist love for the game or the team. It is only about the reward.

So why do you serve God? Do you serve God? Why do you attend church? What motivates you at the core of your being for serving in a church or para-church ministry? Why do you give money for Christian causes? Is there any chance you do so because you believe this will obligate God to pay you back eventually?

There is a whole branch of the Christian religion out there that preaches this – often called the prosperity gospel.  It talks about giving, serving and doing as seeds that you plant so that you can get a rich harvest – certainly over there, but probably over here too (so you can send more money to the organization or preacher).

There is basic truth in the notion that God rewards faithfulness for genuine service and giving and trusting him, though those rewards, I believe, will be more ultimately over there rather than here and now. And they are never to be THE REASON for what we give away.

The Upside-Down Nature of God’s Economy (Matthew 20:1-16)

The window was closing on the extent of the earthly ministry of Christ. Certainly the disciples had little idea as to what was soon to come, though they certainly sensed difficulties ahead. They were travelling to a place where their master was hated and reviled by the religious leadership of their own people. Conflict and change was thick in the air.

Along the way, a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus spoke of keeping the commandments, which the man was able to say he had consistently done.

But then Jesus upped the price, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Some of the disciples surely noted the moisture in the eyes of Christ as he reflected on the man who was unwilling to give up earthy, temporal gain for eternal, spiritual riches.

After an awkward silence, the silence-breaking disciple – the one who surely had loud and impertinent ancestors from the state of New Jersey – involuntarily found himself once again verbally up-chucking his logical thought process. On some of the hard days of trudging around the Judean and Galilean countryside, he found himself reminiscing back to the Sea of Galilee – to his boat – to his love of the water and challenging business of catching fish.

Practically without thinking, Peter said, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Jesus answered that “… everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

He basically said that you can trust me on thisit might look like you are at the back of the line now, but lots of faithful people who feel that way are, in the end, going to find themselves at the front of the line.

This statement is going to come back again at the end of our parable we study today – serving as bookends for it.

When we speak of financial economies, we might speak of something called “market value.” The price of a used car depends on what consumers are willing to pay for—which in turn is mitigated by supply-and-demand and competition.

When we speak of spiritual economies, we might see ourselves through a similar lens. In short, we prefer to “balance the books.”  Hard work, moral behavior—these should give us an advantage against those we view beneath us. This is the way the Pharisees viewed the world around them.

The parable Jesus tells is devoted to seeing God’s grace as built on something other than performance. Jesus is saying that if we view our relationship as a contract, this leads to at least one of two things:

(1) We feel entitled to blessing because of our hard work, and/or

(2) We feel angered when others receive the blessings we feel they don’t deserve.

By contrast, Jesus declares that the “economy” of God’s Kingdom won’t be ruled by contracts and obligations, but by love and grace.

And the ultimate application of this passage will be that the truly “unfair” thing about grace is that any of us should receive salvation at all. This leads us not toward frustration like the servants of the parable, but gratitude for what we receive.

20:1 — “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The Economy of Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)

As I write this devotional, there has been a good bit of discussion around our house this week about economics. My college kid is writing a required essay for a scholarship that is centered upon the writings of Milton Friedman, the famous free market economist. Therefore our conversations have naturally also included the nature of Keynesian Economics as an opposing philosophy.

The Great Depression – causes and remedies – is a central illustration in all of this discussion as well. It may surprise some of you that I can’t personally remember that event, but my father was a young man with a young family of my three older sisters when that happened. It totally colored his whole life and outlook upon finance, and he talked about it and his experiences a great deal. The big crash happened just weeks after he was married.

He always told me that the one good thing that happened to him throughout that troubled time was that he had a job for the duration of it. It paid a rather horrible salary, especially given his commitments to providing for children and even his in-laws living with him. But compared to those who had no work, he was in good shape.

God’s economy looks very differently than mankind’s financial systems. Though diligence and faithful work in God’s kingdom is rewarded, ultimately even having membership in the kingdom and being a servant of the Lord God is in itself all of grace. The concept of grace is central to the way we should view God’s kingdom.

So, in preparation for Sunday, I encourage you to read through one of my favorite parables in Matthew 20:1-16. And as you do, ask yourself what is fair and just, versus what is unfair and unjust … but remember to use God’s economy as your guide.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

20:1 — “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

We are not Charlie, We are Jeffrey (Luke 15)

In the spirit of this summer series of studying the parables of Jesus, let me write one of my own.

Imagine that the day comes that you get to go to heaven – to that wonderful mansion that Jesus spoke of in John 14 that has been prepared for you. And after Saint Peter has shown you your new abode, pointing out where you can find the towels and linens, etc., you decide you should go out and meet the neighbors. You introduce yourself to the fellow next door and you find out that his name is Jeffrey … Jeffrey Dahmer…

And you say, “You know, that name is familiar, why do I remember it?  Were you the Heisman-winning quarterback for the Wisconsin Badgers, or something like that?”

And he says, “No, but you got the Wisconsin part correct; but I was the guy who raped and killed 17 boys … and then I put some of them in the freezer and ate them later on. But that was then, and this is now … so, how about coming to dinner at my place tonight?”

It really could happen. A pastor named Roy Ratcliffe ministered to Dahmer in prison, eventually baptizing him in a prison whirlpool, and he wrote a book called “Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story of Faith.”

A prisoner can grow more resentful for the treatment received in prison. Many certainly do that. Or a prisoner can develop new criminal skills and figure out how not to get caught the next time. Some also do that. Or, a prisoner can reflect on the crimes and the lifestyle that lead to such a place and make a new decision: “I’ll never do that again, so help me God.  Jeffrey Dahmer felt great remorse, which he confessed on several occasions. He had ruined his life beyond repair. … Who could he turn to except God? Certainly, no human would hear the cries of his heart and believe the depth of his sorrow. Only God could. … He began to see the case for God and to see Jesus as the only answer for the havoc he had wreaked in his life. He began to have hope for his ultimate fate. Is it possible that God could really love him – Jeffrey Dahmer? Could the salvation that Jesus offers be available to him, too, despite his heinous acts? Did Jesus die for Jeffrey Dahmer too?

You might be thinking, “Hold it! Yes, grace is greater than all our sin and all that, but, eating other people … that’s just over the line! That’s too hard to digest that God’s grace goes that far!”

The older brother in the parable (and the Pharisees in real life listening to Jesus) thought the younger brother was beyond value or worth in saving and being reconciled to the father/Father. But the big idea of the story is to see that no matter how big or small the sin of one who is restored to relationship with God, the Father’s joy is expansive beyond all comparison.

Our title this week of “Two Kinds of Lost” is represented by the two brothers. The younger brother was lost in sin and foolishness, was separated from the father and essentially dead. The older brother was lost in a sea of self-righteousness, and to some extent was also lost in not understanding the privileges and riches he had as a son – he almost saw himself as just a hired hand.

Hopefully, you the reader are not one or the other kinds of lost as seen in the brothers.

I trust you are not away from God and in a spiritually lost condition of no real relationship with the heavenly Father. Have you ever seen your lost condition for what it is and it a moment in time were reconciled to God through Christ?

I also hope you are not “older brother lost.”  You’ve become critical and bitter; you see yourself as at a higher place because you’ve been a part of God’s family for a long time. You’re not quite perfect, but you’re doing pretty well. Your zeal to reach out to lost people is pretty much gone, because you can see that those people are just too far away to ever be reached.

And maybe you are neither of these. Maybe you are beyond being one or the other – I trust and believe many of you are. And if you are, it is because you understand we are all a Jeffrey Dahmer before God. Our slogan should not be “We are Charlie Hebdo,” but rather “We are Jeffrey” … we are all lost. None have a perfect record, and the amount of debt large or small is not the issue, not when you have a payment so great as is offered in Christ. We should all cease from quantifying the debt of anyone else, but rather with great thankfulness recall that our debt has been paid fully, along with that of all others we know who have trusted in Christ.

Equity Radar (Luke 15)

Having recently had my grandchildren stay with us for a number of consecutive days, I am reminded again of the way that little children are competitive and keep score about everything. It probably doesn’t help that they are from a competitive lineage! But everything that is done is being carefully watched by the two oldest ones who have a highly-refined sense of equity radar.

What is equity radar (besides a phrase I coined about 15 seconds ago)?  When you pour each a cup of milk, the grandkids don’t just look at how much they got, they evaluate how much it is compared to the other. And both of them generally felt they were on the short end at the same time. And if you give them a bowl of cherries, they are going to count them to make sure that each had the same number.

But it is not just children who think this way, so do adults – especially American adults who really believe that a certain amount of hard work should equal a commensurate amount of reward. Hard work should be rewarded; laziness or irresponsibility should come at a price. And the Scriptures do condone diligent and responsible work and fault slothfulness.

And so we can readily commiserate with the older son’s offense in the story of the prodigal son …

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

The older brother is so angry with his younger sibling, that he had disowned him, calling him “this son of yours.”  And the father picks up on the dig and returns the snarky statement back over the net by referring to him as “this brother of yours.”

If true to the culture of the day, the older brother probably was to get a two-thirds share of the estate; so the younger brother probably walked away from home originally with only one-third of the wealth. So, when keeping score, is that really fair?

Of course, the difference in the two sons is related to the issue of work diligence and faithfulness to the family. The older son does this, and the father acknowledges this to be true. And dad reminds his boy of the continuous ongoing blessings that were his on a daily basis to be used and enjoyed.

But the restored relationship of the genuinely repentant younger son was a joy to celebrate that was larger than any factoring of fairness and equity. This calls to mind another of the parables Jesus told about rewards – that parable of the workers in the vineyard who each work for an agreed upon wage, only to have those who work longer resent those who were equally paid for a shorter time. The application is that the issue of rewards is not as big as the issue of faithfulness. Each person should be faithful to their task, letting the rewards be the prerogative of God. Nobody is going to come up short or lacking in blessing or reward for faithfulness.

But still … it just doesn’t seem quite right! However, think of it this way: If God were to be truly fair with us, none of us would receive reconciliation with him. He would have been just to leave us in our sins and under the curse. But Jesus took that curse and paid the penalty, securing release of the consequences of eternal death. All of this was of grace, and we contributed nothing to it. So, how’s that for fair? If we are pleased to receive this grace, we should be pleased to see it extended to others, even those whose tally of sins may be larger than our own.

Discussion questions:  Do you find yourself prone at any time to keep score and in some fashion saying to yourself, “I’m not perfect, but I’m certainly not as bad as that person?”  What is your heart’s motivation for serving God – rewards, or gratitude for the one who first loved you so much?

Found It! Let’s Party! (Luke 15)

In yesterday’s devotional I confessed to the entire online world that I’ve had a lifelong habit of losing things, even some important things. So, in the spirit of our “Long Story Short” summer series about stories that Jesus told, let me tell one of my own as a set-up to understanding the first two of the three parables in Luke 15.

Now that I have a nice, new, shiny red bicycle that has become my best friend this summer, imagine that I sold my previous set of 10-year-old wheels for $250.  I put it on Craig’s list, met the person who wanted to buy it, insisted upon cash from the stranger, and then put the two hundred-dollar bills and the one fifty in my pants pocket … at least, that’s what I thought I did. But that evening at home, I went to get the money out of the pocket, but it wasn’t there. Where could it be? Did I lose it when I got a frozen yogurt at Sweet Frog? Or was it with the box of chocolates at the Russell Stover’s outlet? Maybe I dropped it when pulling the keys out of my pocket. Possibly it fell out at Dairy Queen or the Downsville General Store?

Taking a flashlight out and looking through the car and under the seats did not reveal it – thinking that maybe it fell out when I got stopped yet again by the Sheriff’s Department for not wearing my seatbelt. There is always a possibility in that scenario that I can’t find my driver’s license, registration or insurance card.

Finally, when throwing my clothes in the hamper at night, I feel something in my shirt pocket; and sure enough, there are the three bills. I’m so, so happy that I found the money that I decide right then and there that I’m going to have a party to celebrate with all my friends and neighbors. I will invite the folks from the neighborhood, all five of my sons and their attachments, the church family, my coaching and sports pals, my political buddies, as well as all my history geek friends from Antietam. So in the morning I call Leiter’s Fine Catering (because I’m a good Williamsporter and that’s who you call) and make the arrangements.

Does this make sense to you? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper if I had just never found the money and never had a party that would cost me multiple times more than the money I lost? This serves as a background to help you read these first two parables …

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

15:1 – Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

The Parable of the Lost Coin

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Think about it – the sheep guy is irresponsible, and the woman is a financial ditz. Who would risk 99% of his wealth to find the lost 1%, and who would spend more on a party than what was saved by finding the lost coin (a sum of money that was equal to about a day’s wage)?  The celebration is all out of proportion over the size of the recovered items. But the point of the stories is not to focus on the relief about what was found, but rather on the joy of that which was lost being found.

The parables emphasize the magnitude of God’s love and the joy of the product of salvation – a restored relationship and new reconciliation of a sinner and God. This never gets “old” with God, and that is an amazing thought to ponder. The Apostle John did just that when he penned these particularly beautiful words in 1 John 3 …

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

Speaking of pondering, here are some questions for you (and remember that there is a discussion group meeting most Sundays at 11:00 for these and other questions) … Does this passage touch you deeply when you consider the scope of God’s love? How does this extensive love of God for lost sinners affect the way we view those around us in our world who do not have a relationship with Christ?

Lost Things, and the Joy of Finding Them (Luke 15)

Apparently I have had a lifelong habit of losing things. I don’t actually remember specific items that I lost as a child and youth, but I clearly remember several lines my father used on me in those occasions. He would say, “Randy, you’d lose your head if it wasn’t attached to you.”  Or, when I’d ask him about something I misplaced, he would say, “Yes, I know where it is … right where you last had it!”

It is frustrating in life to lose things or misplace them. Among things I have lost is my wedding ring – years ago when still in New Jersey. I think it happened while coaching little league baseball. I once misplaced my passport in England and only managed to find it at the last minute before flying back to the States. I have twice lost my sermon notes just before it was time to preach – once here and once in New Jersey. It is a weekly experience to lose car keys, cell phone, wallet, etc.

But, when something is lost, but then is found, it is a great feeling of joy and relief. For the next four days we will be looking at the three parables in Luke 15 of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son. Each of them sets up a celebration that is huge – actually out of proportion for the item being found … showing of course the great joy of salvation.

But before someone is found, they have to realize they are lost. And that is a great challenge on many occasions. And we see this very dynamic in the setting of these three parables, each given in response to Christ’s awareness of the attitude of the Pharisees.

15:1 – Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

To the Pharisees, all of the hanging out that Jesus did with the sinner classes of people was, in their view, totally over the line.  Eating with people in that culture signified that you identified with them – and why would a righteous person … say, like themselves … do such a thing and think they are godly??  The Pharisees did not see themselves as lost; the sinners were those who were lost.

Jesus, as always, knows what they are thinking and what was really the condition of their hearts, whether he heard their murmurings or not. And rather than confront it directly, he tells them three stories that have an impact bigger than any frontal rebuke would contain. The point that Jesus would make is that, though they may not have had the same obvious debts as those upon whom they regarded as great sinners, because they lacked perfection, they were indeed just as spiritually lost.

A challenge in evangelism is to get people to understand their lost condition accurately. While you won’t really find anyone who claims to truly be perfectly sinless, the vast majority of people do not rightly understand their lost condition before God. They do not see themselves as being in danger of judgment or in a state of separation from God because of a barrier of sin. They rather see God as a sort of kindly old grandfather who can’t help but dote upon his grandkids – overlooking their minimally insignificant failures to be righteous, believing that God will just sorta say, “Well, boys will be boys.” Then he’ll grin and buy them an ice cream cone.

The fact is that our debt of sin inherited from Adam has us separated from God. The Scriptures speak of us as “dead in our trespasses and sins.” Dead people don’t respond, but God in grace gives us life to respond to the preaching of the gospel. And at that moment there is great rejoicing in heaven when a sinner comes to receive that gift of grace.

Questions to ponder/discuss – Do you remember what it was like before you came to know Christ, and how did you believe you were OK with God at that time?  Do you find it difficult when telling others about Christ to see them understand their lost condition?  What are the thoughts of many people as to why they believe themselves to be fine with God? How do we help people understand their lost condition, and how do we do this without sounding judgmental or condescending?