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.”

Avoiding the audit (Luke 18:1-8)

Confession: this past year I got in trouble with the IRS.  Apparently, I never paid my taxes.  Let me explain.  See, since my second job lists me as “self-employed,” every year I have to pay taxes.  So, I used one of those income tax programs, and filed electronically.  Though not the same day, I even got a notification that said something like “your federal tax return has been accepted.”  The body of the message informed me that I was finished for the year and asked me to review the program.  It wasn’t until maybe a month-ish later that I got a letter from the IRS saying that I owed them a large sum of money, and I’d better comply before late fees started piling up.  Gulp.

I’d done everything right—or so I thought.  The electronic forms all seemed perfectly clear.  So it was a bit frustrating that I’d get zapped by Uncle Sam.

Have you ever felt that praying is like that?  Have you been concerned that God will ignore you unless you can be righteous enough?

It’s true that “the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective” (James 5:16).  But we can’t confuse effect for cause.  James isn’t saying: “Prayer is effective if you’re a righteous man.”  No; James was speaking in the context of confession and forgiveness.  Righteousness isn’t about perfection, but maturity and humility.

Still, we tend to think of God as something of a cosmic IRS agent.  We do all the right things, but we still fear that God might do an “audit,” and we come up short.  To his early followers, Jesus tells this story:

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself,  ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

In the ancient world, widows were particularly vulnerable.  Yet in Jesus’ story, even the disrespectful judge had mercy on this woman.  Jesus’ point was simple: we all know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  The judge caved to avoid the annoyance of the widow.  But if an uncaring judge will show mercy, then won’t a loving and gracious Father show mercy all the more?

The gospel teaches us that our wickedness can never be hidden from God.  If God did an audit, we’d all come up short.  But we can trust that God is merciful.  Our feelings of brokenness and unworthiness should push us into God’s presence, not away from it.  And so we kneel, confident in undeserved mercy, and a grace that flows wild and free.