HEY, LET THOSE CHILDREN COME HERE! (Luke 18)

As many of you know, I do occasional tour groups at the Antietam Battlefield (where I am sitting and writing this final devotional of the summer series). I talk with guests about how the Confederates under A.P. Hill marched 17 miles in 7 hours to arrive on the field just in time to save Robert E. Lee from total disaster.

For them to have done this, it also included wading across the Potomac River at a ford just downstream several hundred yards from where the bridge now is that crosses into Shepherdstown.

And when there are kids in the group, I will say to them, “Hey, it is a shallow place and we could probably go down there now and do the same thing; do you want to do that?”

And invariably the kids will answer, “Yes, that would be so cool; let’s go do it!”

And invariably the parents will say, “No, we’re not going to be doing that!”

Kids are great because they are completely trusting when they sense they are in the care of someone who genuinely loves them and cares for them. They fully believe that those adults will only do those things that will help them, not hurt them.

Another example — a toddler is only about one-quarter the size of a typical grown up. So, imagine if a 24-foot tall giant was to come along, pick you up under the armpits and throw you up and down 40 feet into the air, would you welcome that activity and giggle all the way through it like a little child does?

Didn’t think so!

In today’s reading we see how people were bringing their little ones to Jesus to be blessed and to meet this great teacher in whom they had come to have great respect and faith.

The Little Children and Jesus

Luke 18:15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

This passage is included also in both Matthew and Mark. And when we take the three accounts together, there are three things I would really like to emphasize from it …

First, the words used for children here are not limited to babies or tiny infants, but rather refer to children up to about 12 or 13 years old. The people were bringing families — don’t think of this as an infant dedication service of newborns. Yet at the same time, it is similar in one respect — that it involved the faith of parents in the person of Jesus and their desire for their children to be intimately connected to him.

Secondly, when Jesus rebukes the disciples for forbidding and discouraging this (they thinking that they were protecting Jesus from being bothered), the English translations do not capture the original text’s intensity. His words to them were very sharp, intense, pointed, and filled with emotion. He greatly desired them to come.

And finally, the picture is profoundly accurate to portray both the simple and humble faith of those who come genuinely to God, as well as the desire of God for them to come to him in full trust for salvation and life eternal in His Kingdom.

FINAL NOTE >> It has been a good summer series in the Parables. We next turn to six weeks of study in the book of Esther, and we will be back in less than two weeks with an accompanying devotionals series for that.

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The Tax Collector is a Good Guy? (Luke 18)

Full disclosure here: I am the son of a tax collector! No, really … literally, I am.  My father was the tax collector in the rural township where we lived in New Jersey, as was his father before him. Together, they did it for 60 consecutive years in Harmony Township, NJ. It was a regular feature of my childhood that practically every day, several people would come to our home, walk through the kitchen to my father’s office and pay their property taxes, often in cash.

People don’t like tax collectors. Just think for a moment about what you feel when you see a letter from the IRS in your mailbox. Even though my father tried to make it clear that he had nothing to do with tax rates and assessments … that he was merely the bookkeeping agent for collection … people would vent to him. I even remember people calling him at 5:00 in the morning to complain that their snowy street was not yet plowed, as if he could do anything about it whatsoever.

But in the Roman world, tax collectors were more than mere accountants. They could set the rates to some extent and were well-known to extort, overcharge, and keep a portion for themselves. All of this carried Roman authority. The Romans didn’t care what a collector skimmed off for himself, so long as they got their portion.

So tax collectors could be rich fellows, but also hated fellows for taking advantage of their fellow citizens and countrymen. If you wanted to pick out the most odious character in the land at the time, the local tax collector was about as low as you could go … probably worse than a used car salesman or a pimp.

So when Jesus tells a story (to the religious leaders) that contrasts a Pharisee and a tax collector, he is juxtaposing the best person they could think of (someone in their category) to the worst and most vile character in the culture. And then for Jesus to turn the tax man into the winner, well, it was even worse than seeing a Samaritan as the hero of another story on another day.

In theological realms, we use a lot of words to describe salvation and systems of belief as to what it is that constitutes being a person who is in an eternally correct relationship with God. We may talk about efficacious grace, soteriological universalism, Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Amyraldianism, Arminianism, or Calvinism. A couple of these words are good, a couple bad, and a couple somewhere in the middle.

But at the end of it all, it comes down to this: We bring nothing to salvation, and God brings it all. There is no merit that we can bring. We can boast of nothing — not even being smart enough to have the faith to believe, as even that is a gift of God.

So it is better to be a humble tax collector than a proud Pharisee filled with good works.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18:9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Being OK with God (Luke 18)

Over recent summers at Tri-State Fellowship we have had long sermon series of something like 12-14 weeks. And this is the 14th week upcoming in our Parables series “Long Story Short.” But even so, it always surprises me how quickly it goes by, though, so do the summer weeks and months as well, don’t they?

Just a couple of days ago I heard one of my favorite political/cultural commentators talk about the general state of humanity. He was referencing the strikingly larger number of atrocities that are occurring throughout society, as there also seems to be a growing number of people who are soulless and without any beliefs or values system. He said, “In spite of the increasing number of these horrific situations, I continue to believe that the vast majority of humans are inherently good, as we are all God’s children.”

I cringed, at least theologically.

We are all God’s children in the sense that our creation is sourced in Him, whatever view you take of exactly how that happened or how long it took. But we are not all God’s children in terms of relationship with him as our God and heavenly father — not until such time as we have a saving moment of faith and trust ONLY in the substitutionary death of Christ.

And we are not inherently good — quite the opposite is actually true. The heart is deceitfully wicked, says the Scripture. In Psalm 14 we read, “The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

Now there may be good and honorable and worthy things that some people do, even those with not faith component at all. This is the residue of the image of God in mankind. But these deeds do not compensate for or atone for the debt of sin into which we are born and are doomed through our inheritance of original sin.

So how can we be OK with God? How can we know that we have a relationship with him as a heavenly father?  How do we have confidence that we do not stand in jeopardy of God’s wrath and judgment for sin? We need to be perfect to avoid that; and apart from the introspective minds of a couple of candidates running for President right now, none of are perfect.

But isn’t pretty good, good enough? Doesn’t being in the top several percentage points of goodness amongst human beings surely give enough merit with God for him to say, “You done good son, c’mon into this here heaven!”?

That is a countrified way of saying what essentially was the view of the Pharisees and religious leaders of the time of Christ. And honestly, a great many people today have much the same conception.

So let’s talk about this as we wrap up the summer. David Hadigian will take to the front on Sunday to share some thoughts about these final two parables in Luke 18.  Since the latter one talks about children, we thought it would be good for Dave to take the subject and along the way become even a bit better known to the whole congregation.

Here are the parables from Luke 18 …

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18:9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Little Children and Jesus

15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Out of Step with this World (2 Peter 3)

Many of you who are older like me (or who have seen old sit-com re-runs) may remember the trailer video for the late 60s program “Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.”  Sha-zam! You will recall how Gomer was trying to march in step with the rest of the Marines, but he just couldn’t pull it off properly, especially with Sergeant Vince Carter screaming into his ear.

I look around at the rest of the world and the broader culture and often feel like a Gomer Pyle in terms of understanding it or ever being in step with it … as if that is even any sort of worthy goal.

We see so much injustice on so many fronts, particularly of people who prosper in spite of their values systems, while others who are more honorable by moral and ethical standards are wrongly stepped upon and marginalized.

And as we have answered the question of the past week with a “yes” — that there is final justice and judgment — we live now as foreigners in a strange land. This is not our country; we are not at home here, not really.

If you have travelled to other countries, you know what I mean by how there are so many little things about the culture that are just very, very different.

The French (and other Europeans) do this greeting thing where you kiss right and then kiss left (at least I think it is right/left … or is it left/right?). When travelling there a couple years ago while our son Jesse was studying in Antibes, France, we went to a luncheon gathering of his young adult church friends. And I’ll say it was very awkward to do all this kissie thing with French college girls. I was so afraid I was going to get it wrong and end up with a meet-me-in-the-middle head butt!

So our Christian lives come down to having a sort of skill in living in a place that is decidedly foreign, a place that never quite feels like home, a place where you realize you are always just a bit out of step with the rest of the world, a world characterized by unresolved issues of justice / injustice. Living in such a place looks like this, in the words of Peter in 2 Peter chapter 3 …

3:3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming…  make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation

As we have said over the past week, the Lord will indeed return and a time of accounting and justice will ensue. But until then, what kind of people should we be? Well, spotless, blameless and at peace with God … in other words, confidently out of step with the rest of the crazy world.

And remember also that the patience of the Lord in not returning sooner, and thereby even allowing injustices to grow and expand, does have the positive benefit of the salvation of many and the growth of His Kingdom.

So it is OK to be out of step; there is a good reason for it. We make it work and endure it patiently, because we know we are going ultimately home to our real country and kingdom.

Lots of Different Fish in the Sea (Matthew 13)

Fishing was never my forte. I did some of it when a child, but it was generally too passive for my tastes. What would have made it more interesting is if there was a way that the fish could fight back — I mean, beyond the passive-aggressive posture of ignoring a worm on a hook or a hunk of stinky squid. For example, if there was a way that the fish could also throw a hook back at me baited with a Philly Cheese Steak … well, that would be more sporting.

It just seemed to me that most of the time fishing was sitting around waiting for something to happen that never really happened frequently enough.

But I think I would likely have found the dragnet style of fishing in the Sea of Galilee to be more interesting. A net measuring about six feet high and up to even 100 yards long would be buoyed by floating devices at the top, with rocks at the bottom to keep it vertical. One end was anchored on shore while the other was stretched out from the land by a boat to the net’s full extent. Then the boat dragged the net, fully extended, in a semi-circular fashion back to the shore down the beach. The fisherman then drew the net in, and everything in its path would have been snared within it.

There are about 25 native species of fish in Galilee, some of them being good for sale and profit, while others were worthless. The fish were in the water together, but the good ones were sorted out and kept, while the worthless fish were thrown away. Here again is the parable …

Matthew 13:47-50 — The Parable of the Net

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What can we take away from these three parables of the past three days? Here are five points …

1 — There is a definite judgment day that involves life and death, inheritance and destruction. There is no denying this — not only because of these three Scriptures, but many others that teach the same. So the answer to the title of the sermon is “Yes, there is final justice.”

The idea of a God of judgment does not fit well with so many peoples’ viewpoint as to what God is really like. They see Him as just an old grandfather in his dotage who can’t help himself from loving everyone everywhere in his worldwide family.

For there to be the reality of justice and a reason for right living within a moral construct that is respectful of others, there have to be standards of right and wrong and a law-giver who will bring everything into account at some point. What would the world be like without laws and law enforcement that brought law-breakers into consequence and accountability for wrong behavior?

2 — This teaching should lead us to a sober introspection of our standing before God about the energies and fruitfulness of our lives. (Not as earning a positive standing, but rather of demonstrating the reality and outworking of such.)

I hated final exams… even just the thought of them. It was always this looming Sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head. But I learned over time that the final was nothing to fear if I was regular in reading occasionally through my cumulative notes over the semester. And so is the final judgment nothing to fear for those who honor God — who know him through Christ and make that a defining and regular part of life.

Let me be fully clear that our salvation and standing with God is not dependent upon what we do or do not do. But the fruit of our lives cannot help but picture what is the reality about where we are planted. If there is no interest in eternal things or of serving others in the body of Christ, it is odd indeed.

What would you think of a person who was on a team, but after picking up their uniform seldom came to team practices or games?  What would you think of a spouse who claimed to love the other person, but seldom spent time with that person or any of the family, often not coming home for stretches of time? Would that not raise questions about the genuine nature of the love that was claimed to be meaningful and real?

3 — There is a long period of time until the events of final judgment occur. Just because we do not see the end does not mean it will not ultimately come.

We might tend to look at the world around us and wonder, where is justice?

I have a couple of friends right now that are going through times of life where they are being unjustly treated by more powerful people, and there does not seem to be a remedy. We see in varied people groups around the world some of the worst characters the world has ever seen — some who even rival the evil of the Axis powers of WW2. And they seem to be growing and getting away with their atrocities.

The Scriptures speak of God as all-powerful with a promise of his beneficial intervention in the world and a return to this earth to provide justice, yet it has not happened. (More on this theme tomorrow)

4 — Some measure of confusion and lack of clarity, along with the frustration of a lack of resolution are a natural part of waiting for a final day.

We cannot know for sure who is exactly on the Lord’s side. We may have a broad sense of it as we serve together in the family of faith, but we swim in waters with all sorts of fish. Over time, it clarifies often in peoples’ lives — progressive sanctification either bears fruit, or people wander away from the hard work of faithfulness and from something that was not real in their lives.

5 — Our duty until the final day is to work faithfully, all in the context of a final hope that truth and righteousness prevails.

Ultimately, we control very little beyond ourselves and our immediate spheres of influence, but we can be faithful there. We can be sure that we ourselves are living for God, growing in his Word, trusting him in the midst of a confusing world, and serving others around us with the same values. We can be sure that our own families are centered around the truth and the big picture hope of eternal perspective and life in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  (More on this tomorrow as well)

Wheat and Weeds; and Weeds and Wheat (Matthew 13)

My landscaper / horticulturalist son has over the years planted a whole variety of unique plants around the flower beds of our house. Early in the year I’m never really sure what is growing, as there does not seem to be a whole lot of appearance difference between the flowers and the weeds. So I’m afraid to pull out something without knowing for sure if might not rather be some rare plant he found a way to grow.

This year there have been some tall, bright green plants growing along the back of the house. I did not know what they were and let them grow. After a while I asked Ben if he knew, and he said he did not but that it might be interesting to see what they turned into. Well, we finally determined they were simply tall weeds, and they are now in my substantial burn pile awaiting a fire.

Early in the growing season there can be difficulty in identifying plants, but over time and fruition, they reveal if they are something good or just a worthless weed.

In today’s parable we see a story of a crop of wheat growing, yet intermingled is also a crop of weeds that were sown by the landowner’s enemy. The question is how to get rid of the bad without hurting the good. Here is the story …

Matthew 13:24-30 — The Parable of the Weeds

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

The situation here is that the weeds growing concurrently with the good seed and crop of wheat is a type of grass plant called “darnel” that has a very similar appearance as the wheat. It is only at the end of the harvest cycle that the two are easily distinguishable.

So the landowner tells the workers to wait until the harvest. At that time the plants will be easily separated. The harvest will be preserved without large portions being uprooted, and the weeds can be gathered to have the positive benefit of being used as fuel.

Jesus actually gives the interpretation of the parable a bit later in the chapter in response to the questioning of the disciples …

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

It often seems odd to us that God allows evil to rage on and on without judgment. But he has a timetable for such a judgment, and this mercy he extends allows us to grow in him while also being his agents to reach out to those around.

It is nothing new for God’s people to wonder why God does not intervene more quickly and immediately into the affairs of man. Habakkuk (2:2-4) asked God in frustration, “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.” God ultimately did judge the Babylonians, but not as soon as the prophet wanted to see it happen.

Jeremiah (12:1-2) also called out to God with the verbiage of impatient perplexity … “You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts.”

It is confusing and frustrating to see godless people thrive. But a certain promise is there in Scripture that a final day of judgment will come and God will bring about justice.

< For discussion: Why is it so difficult to wait for God’s justice to be revealed?  How is your faith challenged by this seemingly endless delay? >

About Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25)

Those of you who were at church yesterday and were in the main room heard me open with an illustration about my coaching years. Later in the day, a former runner on the team reminded me that I would often divide the team during practices into groups based upon their talent and level of fitness. One group would have higher expectations and demands. And she reminded me that I often referred to the groups as the sheep and the goats. I had forgotten that. And probably very few of my runners realized I was making a Scriptural inference in those titles.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is one that has been more debated than most parables as to what it is teaching and who are the characters in the groups. So, yes, there are sort of sheep and goats camps of biblical interpretation about who are the sheep and goats! And I did not want to get us too terribly deep into those weeds … because, well … there was another parable about weeds coming up later.

Simply stated, some believe the parable in its context of a discourse by Jesus is referencing God’s judgment upon Gentile nations relative to their treatment of Israel during the Great Tribulation and in advance of the 1000-year millennial kingdom. Others believe it is more general and is referencing the final judgment at the end of all time. I see the merits in the arguments of each, but along with the other two parables in this week’s study simply chose to draw the big ideas and timeless principles out of it.

And one of those timeless principles is the certain reality of God’s judgment. There is a time of accounting that will happen, and the reward or curse that follows is dependent upon one’s faith and execution of that faith in practical ways. Understand that the deeds being spoken of in these verses (and other such passages) are not prescriptions of things to be done in order to gain favor with God. Rather, having gained God’s favor and relationship through Christ, these deeds are the proof-positive outworking of that inner faith. There is a focus away from self to serving others — all men, but especially those of the household of faith.

So judgment is real and is not the overblown imagination of a televangelist in full stride. Not everyone agrees or believes that there will be a final judgment. Why do some people deny this teaching, found here and in many other passages? What might a denial of future and final judgment say about how a person has a wrong view of God? How do we reconcile seeing God as both the definition of love, yet also the dispenser of final justice and judgment?

Matthew 25:31-46 — The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

That Just Ain’t Fair! (Matthew 13, Matthew 25)

A sense of fairness or justice rises very early in our lives. I have seen this most recently when watching my grandchildren. They are constantly looking to see that they are being treated with fairness and equity about such pressing matters as to how much orange juice is in their cup as compared to that in their sibling’s glass.

I suppose you could logically argue that the children in the illustration are actually being self-oriented, making sure they are taking care of themselves and not getting short-changed in any way. Call it maybe “the survival of the fittest.” Being motivated from a sense of justice would cause one child to be equally upset if they got “more” than the other and called attention to that. And that does happen with children and with adults as they see the inevitable inequities that exist in a fallen and sinful world.

But in any event, we have some internal wiring that tells us there needs to be fairness and justice. We know in some intrinsic way that wrongdoing should not be tolerated and that action should be taken against those who harm others. And I would argue that this represents our creation in God’s image, and that the existence of the principle within argues for a good and just law-giver and omnipotent judge.

But as the years go by, the injustices about which we grieve have much greater gravity than the ounces of orange juice or the size of the apple pie slice of dessert. We are saddened when the powerful and entrenched people of society take advantage of people who do not have the resources to defend themselves. We boil over internally when we see evil people in a third world country abuse children or murder innocent people for having a different faith or being from a different tribal ethnicity. Human trafficking is a total outrage. Where is justice? How is this allowed to continue? Will these evil people have to pay for their actions in either this world or the next?

We may also feel the injustice of a life taken before its time, of a young life lost to the folly of a drunk driver, a child neglected or beaten by irresponsible bullies in their lives, or an illness that cuts someone down in the prime of life. Where is God when this happens? Why does injustice exist? Is there a time of accounting, and when will it be?

These are the types of questions we will be seeking to address a bit when we look at three different parables this Sunday and in our writings this next week. To be prepared, here are the three parables of interest in this study …

Matthew 25:31-46 — The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 13:24-30 — The Parable of the Weeds

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:47-50 — The Parable of the Net

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Letting Jesus into the Church (Revelation 3:14-22)

What makes a Church a “good” Church?  What defines its success?  What makes it grow?

In recent years the spotlight has shown—unfavorably—on prominent figures who have built successful churches, only to have their reputations tarnished by scandal.  Tongues cluck at how Christianity could allow such a fall to happen.  But we often forget one thing: it’s easy to blame the pedestal until we realize we’re the ones holding the hammer and nails.  We build pedestals for one simple reason: we thrive on our own sense of success.

We need to hear the words Jesus spoke through John:

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation

15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (Revelation 3:14-22)

John was commissioned to send letters to representative churches in the ancient world.  And if you lived in his day, you’d have loved to attend the church in Laodicea.  They had an amazing worship team, that had just released another billboard album.  The pastor’s latest book was already out of stock in the church bookstore.  A sea of young, attractive faces occupied the coffee shop.  They were big.  They had it all.

And Jesus was left in the parking lot.

Growing up, the image of Jesus “standing at the door” was a familiar one, dominating the canvas of bad Sunday School art.  “He’s knocking on the door of your heart,” it was commonly expressed, “asking you to invite him inside.”  The message was simple: Jesus knocks on unbelievers’ hearts.  They get “saved” by asking him to come inside.  It’s only been in recent years that I’ve come to realize that we might be missing something.  John’s not writing a letter to unbelievers, to the people we typically think of as locked into a life of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”  He’s writing to the church crowd.  He’s writing to people who are attending the biggest church in town, the church whose podcasts are heard around the globe.

And he’s talking to us.

We may roll our eyes at prosperity preachers who tell us silver-tongued lies about being successful.  But we fool ourselves if we let our outrage mask the fact that they’re only saying explicitly (“God wants you to be happy”) what we routinely say implicitly (“Will the sermon speak to my heart?”  “Will the worship team play that song I like?”).  We need to repent—to repent of our idols of success and size, to repent of our confusion of happiness and holiness, to repent of our tendency to see church as something performed for us rather than a community embodied by us.

It is then—and only then—that we may unlatch the gates, to allow Jesus to become a part of every facet of our lives as a church, both as individuals and as a community.

Brighter Still (Matthew 25:1-13)

I have a recurring dream.  Maybe you’ve had it, too.  I’m back in school; it’s finals week.  According to my schedule, I have a math final.  That’s bad enough on its own, but in my dream, I’d always forgotten that I ever even signed up for a math course.  What I’m left with is a looming final and a semester’s worth of equations left unsolved.  In a panic, I’m left to try and put the pieces together in the hopes of not failing out of the forgotten course.

I don’t know much about dream analysis, but in this case it’s usually safe to assume that such dreams stem from fears of inadequacy or unpreparedness.  And, in turn, those fears reveal a solemn fact: that there can be no quick-fix to cover for the absence of commitment.

Regarding life in the future, Jesus teaches:

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13)

Now, there are a number of ways to interpret the parable.  First, Jesus could be suggesting that the foolish virgins represent those who reject God’s grace and lose their salvation.  But nothing in the parable indicates that the flame has to mean salvation.  So—secondly—Jesus could be saying that the foolish virgins represent those who started out with enthusiasm toward God’s kingdom, but their emotion could not sustain them throughout their life.  Or, finally, the “then” of verse one could refer to the period known as the tribulation: the Church is “raptured” into heaven, and during the seven years that follow ethnic Jews would be given the chance to turn to Christ, and through them redeem a great multitude.  The foolish virgins, therefore, could refer to those who—during this seven-year period—refuse to turn.

Regardless of the exact nuance, Jesus’ message is clear: preparedness begets joy, a preparedness for which there can be no substitute.  In his book God in the Wasteland, David Wells highlights a disturbing fact about contemporary Christians.  Many of us might assume that Christianity’s problems stem-at least partially—from an overabundance of religious “fundamentalists.”  But no, says Wells; the problem isn’t that we have too many fundamentalists, but too few.  In the last several decades, American churches have become preoccupied with personal satisfaction and self-improvement.  Christian books on dieting (yes, dieting) became bestsellers in local Christian bookstores.

The tragic result of this culture of “therapy” is that Christianity becomes indistinguishable from any of the other voices out there in culture today.  If my goal is happiness, then why choose Christianity over any of the simpler options at my disposal?  But now that Christianity has chosen to market itself based on felt needs and personal satisfaction, the light of the gospel has been extinguished, and our hopes dashed.

This, friends is a tragedy.  But while we may analyze and pick apart the trends of our broader culture, we must also turn our gaze in on ourselves—or, better—to allow God’s Spirt to expose our backward motives.  If I look to Jesus to satisfy my immediate needs, then I have treated him as a means to an end.  And when his blessings dry up, or they no longer satisfy, the fire of my faith flickers dim and expires.  But if I look to Jesus as my ultimate source of my satisfaction and joy, then the fire of my faith burns brighter still.