Wednesday, November 20, 2013


In my previous post I discussed how Jesus chose to eat with those who were looked down on by the religious of His day.  He "eats with tax collectors and sinners" was the criticism often leveled against Him.  He ate with people who did not keep the rabbinical rules and who probably weren't too careful about keeping God's rules.

As I stated there, Jesus was on a mission to bring people back to God, and apparently started with those who would have been more aware of their alienation from God.  He seems to have given up on the "righteous" -- those who were satisfied that they were in a right relationship with God.

But He hadn't completely given up even on these -- the Pharisees and the scribes; in at least one incident we find Him extending an invitation to them.

Even though the story is familiar to many of us, it may be possible to miss the invitation.  The story takes up the entire 15th chapter of Luke, even though it includes three familiar parables which are often looked at separately out of their context.

"And all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Him to hear Him.  And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them'" (15:1, 2).

Notice the next words, "And He told ­­­them this parable ..." (verse 3).  As all good grammarians know, a pronoun usually refers to its nearest antecedent.  In other words, even though the tax collectors and sinners may have heard and enjoyed them, the following three parables were directed primarily at the religious complainers.

The first parable Jesus tells (15:3-7), is of a man who owned 100 sheep, but searched out the one that was lost.  After finding it he called his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him.  Jesus concludes this story with, "I'm telling you that even so, there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents more than over ninety-nine righteous who do not have need for repentance!  (15:7)

The next parable (15:8-10) is of a woman who had ten drachmas, but "lit a lamp and swept her house" until she found one that was lost, after which she too called her friends and neighbors to celebrate.  Jesus concludes this one with, "Even so, I'm telling you, there will be joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!  (15:10)

The third story (15:11-32), is of a father who had two sons.  Most of us know the first half of this story, of the so-called "prodigal son," the younger son who leaves home and squanders his inheritance on "loose living," then repents and returns to his father who "moved with compassion" welcomes him back into the family with a party.  But there's more to the story than this.  There's an older brother -- one who has been loyal to the father, who has "never disobeyed a commandment" of the father.  (See:  THE BARTER SPIRIT.)  Like those Pharisees and scribes we meet at the beginning of the chapter, he objects to the father's compassion for the lost brother.

The story closes with an open ending.  The father pleads with his older son, "Child, you are always with me and all that's mine is yours.  But it was necessary to celebrate and rejoice, because this your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!?  (15:31, 32)

We're not told how the story ends, whether the older brother responds to the father's invitation or turns around and walks away.  But this is just a story.  The real invitation is for those religious grumblers to recognize that these "tax collectors and sinners" with whom Jesus was eating were lost brothers who were returning to the fold, that God was celebrating over this and that they too should celebrate.

I used to teach a class called Bible Study Methods at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, TX.  Most of my students were older than the typical college kids, and most were "churched."  I taught that there are three steps to Bible study:  observation, interpretation and application (See:  ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS).  I used this story as one of the assignments.  They were to find and write out the biblical principle or principles found in the passage and to write out a personal application for themselves.  I would remind them that when we apply biblical principles we must apply them to ourselves -- to where we are right now and what changes are necessary for our lives.  So even if they had a great testimony of how "Jesus found me in the pigpen of sin and pulled me out," that was not what we were looking for.  The question was where does this passage and its principles hit me now in my present state of spiritual growth and what changes does it demand of me?

A few (very few) wrote about how they were still like that rebellious younger brother and how they needed to repent as he did.  Quite a few told stories of sibling rivalries they still were clinging to (not surprisingly most of these were the older of a pair).

But the stories that were the most moving went something like this:  (I'm paraphrasing and conflating).

"I was like that younger brother before I came to Christ, and God changed my life!  But that was years ago and now I realize that I have become that older brother.  I'm a good church member; I serve as a deacon; I teach a Sunday school class; I sing in the choir; I tithe; I say all the right words.  I look down my nose at some of those young people I see.  I don't go out of my way to meet and greet them.  I even wish that they wouldn't come to our church.  But now I realize that I was just like them a few years ago.  And God is inviting me, as He did that older brother and those Pharisees and scribes, to celebrate with Him when these people come to Christ.  I've been growing in the wrong direction.  God wants me to become more and more like the father, like Jesus, and less and less like that older brother or the Pharisees."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


"Being first is a problem.  I have to eat so much."
- Ronald Reagan (quoted in Time, 9/23/1985)

The Gospels, especially Luke's, devote a great amount of material to accounts of, and disputes about, Jesus' eating. His and His disciples' eating habits were often the source of criticism and condemnation by His contemporaries, especially the religious ones.

"And the Pharisees and their scribes were grumbling to His disciples saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax gatherers and sinners?'"  (Luke 5:30)

"And they said to Him, 'The disciples of John fast often and say prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink" (5:33).

"And it was on the Sabbath and He was going through the grain fields and His disciples were rolling the heads of grain in their hands and eating.  But some of the Pharisees said, 'Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'"  (6:1, 2)

"For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine and you say, 'He has a demon!'  The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you say, 'Look, a man who's a glutton and a wino, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"  (7:33, 34)

Then there's the story of the "town sinner" who washed His feet with her tears while He was dining at a Pharisee's house (7:36-50).  "And when the Pharisee who invited Him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this one were a prophet, He would have known who this is and what sort of woman she is who's touching Him, that she's a sinner'"  (7:39).

"... a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him and He entered in and reclined.  And the Pharisee was amazed when he saw that He didn't first wash before lunch" (11:37, 38).

Then the first 25 verses of chapter 14 give a series of incidents that occurred while He was dining at the house of a Pharisee on the Sabbath.  First He healed a man, which was considered to be unlawful on the Sabbath.  Then He followed this with a series of parables and sayings punching holes in their ostentation and pomposity.

Again in chapter 15:  "And all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to hear Him, and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling, saying 'This one receives sinners and eats with them'" (15:1, 2).

Or the account of the conversion of Zacchaeus (19:1-10), a notorious tax collector, who promised after coming to Jesus that he would make amends to everyone he had swindled and give half his possessions to the poor.  All we read of the crowd's reaction was, "All who saw this were grumbling, saying, 'He's going in to lodge with a man who is a sinner!'"  (19:7)

So what were these people so uptight about and why did Jesus seem to enjoy pushing their buttons?

There are many explanations and not all fit.  An answer usually given to the first question is that the Jewish people of Jesus' day attempted to rigidly follow 'Kosher' laws.  There were rules in the Law of Moses, the Torah, prescribing what kinds of animals could be eaten, as well as how these meats were to be prepared.  There were rules regarding cleansing and laws specifying who could eat what.  There were also rules regarding the Sabbath day, the day of rest and what could or could not be done on that day.  Then the rabbis had added more rules on top of these to ensure that the God-given laws could be kept.  This was referred to as "building a fence around the Law."

While there were of course, many who strove to observe all the rules, there were also those who felt themselves specially chosen to make sure those rules were kept.  And of course, there were others, who didn't or couldn't keep all the rules.  These folks were regarded as "sinners."  They were defiled and all who ate with them were defiled as well.

Jesus kept the Mosaic Law.  We read of no incident where He broke it.  But He did push the line and in pushing the line, He often crossed the artificial lines that fenced in the Law.  And He Himself explained why He behaved the way He did and as to why He ate with the outcasts -- the tax collectors and sinners:  "The healthy have no need of a doctor, but those who are ill do.  I didn't come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (5:31, 32).

I don't know if His hearers -- "the righteous" -- caught the sarcasm in those words.  Jesus was a man on a mission; he had come to bring people back to God.  And He had to start with those who were sinners, who recognized that they were in some way alienated from God.  He seems to have given up on those who felt that they were already right -- "righteous" -- before God (and that God was lucky to have them).

But in befriending "sinners," He had to break with tradition, with those man-made rules.  And in doing this He became regarded as unclean in the eyes of the "righteous."

I have often attempted to get a mental picture of Jesus reclining at the table with disreputable people.  I can see Him surrounded by loud, shaggy, dirty, smelly men (and women), laughing as He tilts his glass and chugs down one more round.  He must have been pleasant company, as we're told that they sought him out.  He was their friend.

And though He was on a mission, I can't help believing that He was enjoying himself immensely.

Monday, November 4, 2013


1 Corinthians 12:9, 10:  "And He said to me, 'Sufficient to you is my grace, for power is perfected in weakness.'  Most gladly then will I rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell upon me.  Therefore I take delight in weaknesses, in insults, in disasters, in persecutions and distresses on Christ's behalf, for whenever I am weak then I am strong."

I'm sitting in a hospital room as I begin writing this.  Earlier in the week, Uni and I took a spill while riding our tandem bike; I slammed my right side hard against a curb, as well as acquiring quite a bit of road rash on my right knee and elbow and on both hands; Uni received a huge blood blister near her right eye.  We sat there in pain for a few minutes, then got back on our bike (which was undamaged) and rode a few more miles.

I didn't think too hard about it -- I always felt that I had a pretty high tolerance for pain -- until a couple of days later, as the pain seemed to intensify and my breathing became more labored.  Anyway, after some loving persuasion from Uni and some friends, I ended up in the hospital.  I have a collapsed lung, a broken rib and a chip at the end of another rib.

I feel weak; I feel dependent; I don't like this!  I am now at the mercy of doctors, nurses and technicians as they poke me and probe me, as they wheel me away for one more test or x-ray.  I have tubes attached to me; I can't move -- even in bed -- without pain or getting entangled in tubes.

I'm a man and I am proud.  It is at times like this that I realize how proud I am.  I'm 76 years old and am told that I don't look it.  (I know Uni doesn't look her 75 years).  We can still walk a few miles and ride our bikes.  We go dancing.  I take pride that I can keep dancing with my friends' wives after the men are worn out (if they can dance at all).

But now!  Now I feel 76 years old!  Or even older!

At times the Apostle Paul seems a bit proud in his writings -- especially in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians from which the quote at the top comes.  When we read of his sufferings in 6:4ff, we can't help but admire his physical strength and endurance.  And then in chapter 11:16ff he really cuts loose.

And then in the middle of his "boasting," he says something that sounds strange.  11:30:  "If it is necessary to boast, I will boast in the things of my weaknesses."

Our heroes are persons of great strength (or at least must appear so), whether sports stars or movie stars or comic book superheroes.  Even rock and country musicians have to have the sleeves ripped off their shirts to display their bulging biceps.  And we normal mortals do our best to emulate them.  We exercise and work out, not just for our health, but also for our appearance.

But every so often God reminds us of just how weak we are, as He did with Paul.  And as He did with me.  God doesn't need our physical strength or our emotional strength or any other kind.  God rather desires our dependence on Him.  He wants us to recognize that any strength to accomplish anything of worth comes not from ourselves but from Him.

I'm home from the hospital as I finish this.  I'm healing nicely.  I can probably get back on the bike soon, though I'm a bit reluctant to do so.

Thank You, Father, for the lesson on weakness.  Please help me not to forget as I heal.