Work Frustrates: Genesis 3.15-19

What’s the most frustrating job you’ve ever had? 

Recalling that job is easy, right? The one where you had to ride the clock, the one were you got micro-managed, the one with all the broken machinery you got stuck with. Frustrating, wasn’t it?

We’re spending these early fall weeks at Woodland thinking about work. We started last week, in Genesis 1-2, thinking about the goodness of work: work matters, because God works. God Himself is a worker. He made an image-bearer to share His own work; He instructs mankind to flourish; He provides the means through creation for humankind to live through work; His material creation is good; and, He takes satisfaction in His work.

All of this means that the work we do matters! Yes, in addition to the opportunities I have to build relationships and share the Gospel with co-workers, my work matters in and of itself. Much of this is because my work is the way God cares for other people through me. “God Himself milks the cows through him whose vocation it is,” as Martin Luther said.

But figuring out just how God is working through us is pretty hard in a technological world where product is often so far removed from worker, where people often get treated like machines, where work is done badly.

Genesis 2-3 helps us understand how we got here. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall surely not eat,  for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:16, ESV).

We know the story. Our first parents chose, in the critical moment, to ignore God’s Cultural Mandate of 1:28. Their failure to flourish according to God’s design was—among other failures—the failure to work well. And so, today: work frustrates, because people sin. 

In the oracle of Genesis 3, following creation’s fall, God Himself addresses His creation through the Satanically possessed snake, and He addresses us (really) through our first parents (3.14-19). Important to digest is the truth that God now describes the world as it is in rebellion against Him. These are descriptions, not prescriptions. It’s not supposed to be this way! But it will be, for a time, and here are the results of man’s shoddy workmanship:

Creation is fallen (:3.15). The snake is a fascinating creature in the biblical account. Since the serpent represents creation, and the sub-human animal order in particular, his presence allows God to speak to His creation. Since the serpent is possessed by the Evil One, God may address the power behind the animal, but in a way intelligible to us. The mere fact that the Creator speaks directly to the slithering creature at all, while bypassing His vice-regent image-bearer, indicates disturbance in the created order. In God’s edict itself we learn that humanity—which was to show creation what God is like—will now struggle for survival and be challenged by creation. He shall bruise your head, but you shall bruise his heel.

Here we have the root of every problem in work. Work, which was to result in human flourishing, will now be the means to bare survival. In scrapping with the serpent in the dust, it won’t be clear who has dominion. And, in a more technological age, people will increasingly be treated like machines, rather than image-bearers. This will be the source of all the “dumb” jobs we’ll ever do. Even okay jobs (like being a lifeguard or a security guard) will be tainted with the curse, because they owe their very existence to human inability, deception and failure.

Human working relationships are fallen (:3.16). God then addresses us as women and men through our first parents. To Eve He explains that the work of producing offspring will now be frustrated. I will greatly multiply your painful toil in conception, and in painful toil you will bring forth sons (my translation).

This isn’t talking so much about delivering babies as it is the entire business of bringing up offspring. God is saying, You’ll want children, but then you won’t be able to have them (maybe); but then you’ll have them, but then they’ll break your heart … And, we have to look no further than Cain and Abel to see how that worked out for Eve.

More, and speaking to all women, your relationships with men will be frustrated. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. You’ll crave male affection and attention, but then men will bully you! You’ll do the hard work of homemaking, but be under-appreciated. Sexual intimacy too will become a source of contention. Some of you will stand up for yourselves and get liberated, but you won’t be affirming men; you’ll be trying to live without them. Men will get confused about masculinity, so that (some) professional football players will beat up their girlfriends, but you’ll cheer for them anyway (if they wear the right uniforms). Then, the whole idea of gender will get confused, so that people will be encouraged to spend their lives reconsidering the gender that they now believe society assigned to them at birth … So much for human fruitfulness!

Cultivation of the earth is fallenness (3.17-19). In addressing men (through Adam), God comes to what we typically consider “work”. Thorns and thistles [shall be caused to grow], and you shall eat the plants of the field. In other words, you will eat, but it will be frustrating. By the [sweat of your nose] you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. More good news—death will be your only escape from this affair. Barely hopeful. And, so much for being “like God”.

We have here the source of all frustration in work, pictured by the struggle with the ground. Creation will fight you, God says. Yes, you might try to cheat this process, and it might look for a time like you’re winning (and some people will get rich!), but there’s always a cost. You’ll use pesticides, we imagine God explaining, so you’ll produce more from the earth. But then the bees will start to disappear, along with their pollinating work. And then, everybody will become so gluten intolerant that you can’t eat the stuff of the field anyway. You’ll clone sheep, but then instead of improving breeds you’ll now be stuck with the weaknesses of whatever breed you’ve cloned. You’ll clear cut the Northwoods of Wisconsin, so that when all the trees are gone, Westboro and Rib Lake will practically die—and the railroad will leave, and the high school in Westboro will close, and (in 2017) you’ll barely be able to support your little library …

Are we discouraged yet? Remember, if we don’t understand the human condition to be really, really bad, then we won’t understand the Gospel to be really, really good news.

And, here’s the Good News! There’s a little trickle of water in the desert of Genesis 3. In verses 22-24, our first parents are cast from the Garden, and an angel guards the way back,  … lest he reach out his hand and … live forever. God is not content to let us live in fallenness.

The other bit of good news appears so slender that it might be easily missed in verse 15, from God’s address to the snake: … he shall bruise (or, crush) your head, and you will bruise his heel. There’s a champion worker coming! Yes, this champion will be hurt too in the struggle with fallen creation, but fallenness will not prevail. In fact, this champion will work the cruse backwards!

So, even as we lean into that outline of hope we glean from Genesis 3, we draw some takeaways for our workweeks ahead:

Every time we feel frustration in our work, it’s an opportunity to remember that we aren’t gods—there is a particular way that God wants us to flourish. Also, that same frustration provides opportunity to remember that God has planned something better for us. And, in Christ, He worked (and is working) to bring it to fruition!

 

Here are some thoughts question that would be good to consider as we work this week: 

How much of your frustration with your work is the result of sin?

How much of your frustration with your work will Jesus finally redeem when He comes? 

How does God’s grace in your life help you serve God through your work while you press toward the return of Christ? 

How badly do we need hope in the champion worker who has come? (That’s Jesus, by the way …!)

How badly do your fellow image-bearers need you to persevere, because you understand the big picture about what God is doing? 

How much does the hope with which we do our jobs demonstrate that we understand the Gospel? 

 

 

 

 

Work Matters: Genesis 1.26-2.3

What are some words that describe how you feel about your work? Fulfillment? … Frustration? … Denial? 

During these early fall weeks at Woodland we’re thinking together about work—it’s goodness, problems, redemption and goal. This is work in its broadest sense—not (necessarily) our jobs or what we do for a paycheck, but the organizing, fashioning, creating and playing we do in the world. If you’re a homemaker, you work (probably harder than anybody). If you’re retired or a student or a child or unemployed or disabled, you still work.

We start our thinking by going to Genesis 1 and thinking about God’s work. The immediate problem in this opening chapter of the Bible is that God’s creation is formless and void. In response, God works. He addresses formlessness by creating categories of heaven and earth, light and darkness, sky above and waters (then dry land) below, and day and night. Then, he fills the void with the products of His work—plants, ocean life, critters. Then, as His crowning work, God does something surprising: He creates someone with whom He will share His work.

Since the focus of Genesis doesn’t switch to man’s doings until Genesis 2.4, it’s instructive to focus on God’s work in 1.26-2.3 as the pattern for our own. Here’s some things God does in His work:

God makes image-bearers and give them work (:26-27). Let us make man in our image, after our likeness … And let them have dominion. Old Testament commentator Keil Delitsch tells us that Ancient kings set up images of themselves at the borders of their territory. God is doing something like that here. He’s placing His stamp on the world by creating someone who shares many of His attributes, and then He’s giving humankind authority in His world. It’s like God is saying, My image-bearers will show the borders of my rule. The whole earth!

Chapter 2 of Genesis recasts the creation story from the vantage-point of humankind. In verse 15, we learn more about mankind’s work, The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. These are important words. “Work” has about it the idea of progress through cultivation. “Keep” involves tending and protecting through conversation. Importantly, both of these ideas have about them the idea of physical, bodily work. But importantly, they both came to be used later in the Old Testament of the worship of God. Alan Ross remarks, “Whatever activity that man was to engage in in the garden … it was described as spiritual service to the LORD.”

God instructs mankind to flourish through work (:28) … bear fruit … be many … fill the earth. This is the Cultural Mandate. God’s work in multiplying His creation is to be carried out by His image-bearers. This includes making babies, but also every kind of work.

What do you want for Westboro and Rib Lake? This is the kind of question I discussed recently with the editor of our local paper. My answer: we at Woodland want Westboro and Rib Lake to flourish! We want jobs, strong families, healthy businesses, devoted public servants. We want our little library in Westboro to stay open. We even care about the bar that sells pretty good burgers. Of course, real flourishing doesn’t happen without the Gospel. (That part didn’t get printed, but we’ll try again next time.) Asking ourselves where our local places most need to experience human flourishing and where God has uniquely positioned us in our local churches to address these needs is all about the Cultural Mandate we’re to carry out.

God provides means to live through work (:29-30). Behold! I have given you every green plant, which sows seed, on the earth and every tree, which sows fruit tree in it, to eat (my translation). While it blows by us in the English, it’s clear in the original that creation itself has created life in it. Plants have the stuff of plant life to allow them to reproduce after their kind. Same thing with apple trees. We’re reading an early description of genetics here—and long before the discovery of DNA. God’s message is that all this creation will meet the needs of His image-bearers, if they steward it properly. Here is an ecological message early in the Bible!

God makes good stuff in His work! (:31) … And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Not just “good,” but “very good.” From God’s judgment at His reflection of His work, we know that God doesn’t just care about “spiritual” things (like going to church and personal quiet times), but about His physical world.

For us, this means that if you’re an electrician, you need to love circuits and wires! If you cut hair, you need to love introducing beauty into the world! If you’re a logger, you need to care about the proper way to do things and the health of the land! There’s real goodness in the stuff of work, because God made it (and us!) and approves of His good creation.

Finally, God takes satisfaction in His work (2.1-3) … God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. God didn’t rest because He was tired, but because He was finished. And, as His image-bearers, we’re designed to enter into His Shalom—this picture of completion, satisfaction, well-being and fulness.

Here’s some takeaways from our reflection on God’s work in Genesis 1.26-2.3:

My work (in and of itself) matters to God. Sometimes in churches the idea is floated that God puts us in jobs only to share the Gospel. Of course, God places us in various situations to talk about the work of Christ! But, God also cares about our work in His creation for its own sake. This means that if I’m a student, God cares about my preparation. If I’m a line-worker in a factory, God cares about my punctuality and efficiency—and the value I add to the world through the profitability of my company, even if I’m a temporary worker!

My work is the way God cares for others. “God milks the cows through him whose vocation it is,” Martin Luther would say, in his day. God can work directly, but He typically works through people. This means that, if I’m milking cows, for instance, God is really feeding people through me. This also means that I ought to respect the work God is doing through others. The checker at the grocery store isn’t a vending machine. And, perhaps, I ought to put away my cell phone in line. Ask her about her day, when she gets off. Ask him his opinion of some product. God is working through others, whether they know Him or not.

My work can be done well or badly. Genesis 2.16 will place limits around the work of our first parents: they’re to eat from the tree of life, not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Not all activity is work that honors God.

And here, we arrive at the tension we feel when we consider the goodness of work, and our work in particular. Something has gone terribly wrong. Something has disturbed that pure, pristine picture of work we read about in Genesis 1 when we consider God’s intention for our work in imitation of His own. That’s our business for next week.

But, the picture we receive at creation shows us where we’ve come from. And, it gives us the right place to start in thinking about our work.

Work matters, because God Himself works!

 

This week we welcome to new small groups to our adult ministries at Woodland. Glad you could join us, Marschke/Petersen and Petersen/Everson groups! But, regardless of where you are in reading this, do find someone with whom you can think about the goodness of work. And, consider these questions:

 

What words did you use to describe how you feel about your work? 

 

How does knowing that God Himself works change the way you think about your own work? 

 

What specific ways does God serve His creation through you and your work? (How many can you list?)

 

How does your perception of work need to change, now that you’ve considered God’s work in Genesis 1.26-2.3? 

 

Thinking of your involvement in your church family, what is some work that yet needs to be done in your community? (Where does your community most need to see human flourishing? Where is your church family uniquely positioned to address these needs?)

 

A Life Established in Wisdom: Psalm 90

This week Harvey came to shore. Thirty-eight deaths (at last count), 50,000 structures under water (at least), generations of work swept away. For awhile, frenetic activity will rule the day. Crews from distant places will rush to Houston to gut every structure worth saving. Debris will line the streets. Many will be homeless for a long, long time …

But there will come a day when thoughtful people will reflect. How do we live wisely when life is so short? How do we hope to see our lives established when everything we do can be swept away and disappear?

Psalm 90 speaks to these questions. In this ancient text (perhaps the oldest of the Psalms), we read of Moses’ response to God’s particular judgement of Israel. While those in Houston labor and suffer under the general effects of a fallen world resulting from sin, Moses and Israel faded away in the wilderness under the direct judgement of God.

What do you teach people passing away? How can those you lead yet be established in their lives when under God’s judgment?

Those whom God establishes in wisdom ponder God’s eternality (:1-10) God is … (:1-2) This is the most basic thing we can know about God. Before God created generations of men, mountains, earth and world; before time itself (mea olam ad olam “from everlasting to everlasting”), God is. Moses, like a good Jew, is about to complain to God. But, he will complain in faith. Like Israel, he wrestles with God, but he will complain in relationship.

God is Creator … This is the second most significant truth we can ponder. We live in a materialistic age that (for the most part) says that matter is eternal. Not so, in the worldview of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. God is the eternal Creator and the starting place for thinking about all life. Evil, love, your body, your work—these make sense when we begin, rightly, by knowing God as Creator.

“I believe in order to understand,” Augustine said.

“I believe in God like I believe in the sun, not because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (C.S. Lewis).

God is the Creator of creatures (:3-6). He returns man to where man came from: You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” (:3). Humankind passes from this life—like a “watch in the night,” like debris, like a dream, like grass.

And, God judges sin (:7-10). You have set our iniquities before you … (:8a). Our sins are exposed. Then, we expire: … we bring our years to an end like a sigh (:9b).

Is this depressing yet? Not if you are in relationship with Your eternal Creator.

Those whom God establishes in wisdom measure their days (:11-12). Psalm 90 turns on the two middle verses which form a question and an answer. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? In other words, who makes the connection between God’s judgment and man’s sin? (:11).

Then, the answer, and the theme verse for the entire psalm: So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (:12). The one with the proper estimation of himself—this one will receive “wisdom,” moral and ethical skill in body, mind, soul and desires.

So depressing now? Not so much. In Moses’ situation, there was time left yet before the older generation sunk into the sand. And, there were the children, the rising generation, hopeful to be rooted in God. And, there was the eternal God who can establish them in wisdom and whose favor might yet be enjoyed.

And those whom God establishes in wisdom do enjoy God’s favor (:13-17) Petitions abound in this final section. Turn back to us!Comfort your servants (:13) … Satisfy us! (:14) … Make us glad! (:15) … Show us your work! (:16) … Establish the work of our hands (:17). While only a couple of these verbs are properly passive, the passive idea dominates. God is the subject; we are the objects of His affections. God is the One who acts as Creator; we respond as creatures. And, if we respond to God in wisdom, the work of our hands will become part of God’s work, and we will know God’s favor, and our work will endure.

Moses died, as did the older generation of Israel. But, God wasn’t finished. Here’s the good news! In the fulness of time Christ came. He who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5.21). Moses’ hope, however distant, was anchored in Christ. Our hope, in floods and in the frequent frustration of our own work, is, likewise, in Christ. In Jesus, we enjoy God’s favor. The petitions of Psalm 90 come true for us. Our lives, established in the wisdom of God, count for eternity, because we are His workmanship, and the work itself is His.

And that isn’t depressing at all!

 

 

 

 

Wheat and Weeds: Matthew 13.24-30; 36-43

Image credit: Sleepy Claus on Flikr: CC BY 2.0

 

How do you know a carrot? There’s yet a lot the Regier family is learning about growing things. Take, for example, what a carrot looks like.

This week as we labor with our wicker baskets full of orange carrots and other ripe produce from the garden, we remember how scant months ago we puzzled over the green, ferny little shoots that appeared overnight in our radish and carrot row. Many of these tender newcomers looked for all the world like other little shoots appearing in our potato rows, our lettuce row, and (for that matter) our flowerbed. How to remove weeds without pulling up the produce? As it turns out, we waited to extract the weeds, until we knew proof positive what a carrot, in fact, looks like—all for the sake of the carrots …

This week at Woodland, as we draw our summer series on the Parables of Jesus to a close, we come full-circle. We began in June with Jesus’ teaching of the The Sower and the Soils (Matt 13.18-23). Through that story we saw that those who “get” (understand, respond to) Jesus hear God’s Word, accept it and live for God. These are the fruitful soil that, verse 23, ” … bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (ESV). These people who respond to Jesus live alongside those represented by the other soils—rocky, shallow and thorny.

The Wheat and the Weeds (:24-30) continues the earlier story. Following that parable, this parable, in effect, tells what happens when the farmer harvests. And, in our world outside the fictive world of the parable, it describes the experience of those who follow Christ, despite resistance, while learning to look forward to Christ’s coming. What will be the experience of those who do respond to Christ? How will they co-exist with those who don’t “get” Jesus? 

In the beginning of the parable the weeds triumph, for a time (:24-28a). The Sower plants good seed in his field. But while his men sleep his enemy commits bio-warfare, scattering weeds throughout his field, so that (like in the Regier garden) the produce and weeds appear together. The now wakeful servants identify the weeds, but the sower (who has never slept) identifies the problem—it’s the enemy.

The Wheat survives! (:28b-30). Now the servants, getting a bit ahead of the Sower, have a solution: let’s pull the weeds! But the Sower, firmly in command, realizes that the roots of both are intertwined. Pull the one, and you lose the other. Wisely, and patiently, the Sower instructs his servants to permit both to grow until the harvest. Easily lost in our distraction with the weeds at this point is the fact that the wheat has survived. The enemy has not triumphed … the weeds have not choked out the wheat … the resolution is a certainly, but not yet realized. The Sower is unshakable in his care for the wheat and, in some measure, for the weeds as well.

The Sower harvests, dividing for safe-keeping and destruction (:30b). The harvest arrives, and the reapers cut the crop and divide the wheat from the weeds. We’re back to familiar ground for the audience of Jesus’ day. Ancient Middle-Easterners would have recognized the lolium temulentum (also known as darnel or tares) that grew to about two feet high and imitated wheat in its early development. These ancient farmers knew the poisonous weed had one useful purpose—grist for the oven, burning. And, so in the parable, the weeds are destined for destruction, but the wheat is gathered safely into the Sower’s barn.

In the Matthew 13 telling of this story, Jesus addresses a great crowd. There must have been quite the buzz among that mixed group—some enemies of Jesus, others curious hangers-on to His teaching; but only some devoted followers of the invisible, but growing-despite-resistance Kingdom of God. Later in the chapter, Jesus pulls back with some of these, His true followers, to explain the parable (:36-43). From His explanation, we draw some lessons:

The Lesson of the Sower. Here we learn that God permits His followers to co-exist in the world with those who don’t follow Him. Following Christ’s return to the Father, the Apostles preached the Gospel, including the cross of Christ. They spoke of dependance on God by faith, confession of self-dependance and ever-increasing desire for God and His things followed by spiritual fruit. But, Satan imitates this fruit, bringing about the appearance of prosperity: “The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” (:38b-39a).

And so, we who follow Jesus today locate ourselves in the parable. The Devil and his “weedlings” are all around us, together with their message. Perhaps the most obvious weed-message sounds something like this: If I turn up in church and do my bit, God will give me health, recreational toys, success in family and business. I’ll be a good person and get my weekly God fix and so have high self-esteem to overcome my problems. 

That’s being crass, but some of it sounds pretty good. Like novice gardens, how do we find the carrots among the mixed-message mess? Notice, and we take this right from the Gospels (Matt 4.1-11, for example) that weed-talk includes no mention of the work of Christ at the cross. And, there’s no longing for Christ’s return, and no expectation of resistance. By contrast, the wheat endures, rests in God’s care, and looks forward to Christ’s return when the mess of this world will be sorted out.

The Lesson of the Weeds. Likewise, we learn that those who don’t follow Christ will be held accountable, but at Christ’s return. In the meantime, followers of Jesus will be tempted to think that the way of faith in Christ doesn’t work. “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9.54). That was the disciples’ response to Jesus’ patience in the face of unbelief. What they were really saying was, Jesus this way of patient faith in you doesn’t produce fast fruit now! We could do this a lot better and faster on our own.

We’re not so different, really. When we pull back into our churches to list our grievances against those who don’t follow Christ, we are, in effect, getting ahead of God. Do you want us to light up the weeds, we’re asking God? He will judge, in time; till then, we endure, looking to Christ’s return.

Lesson of the Wheat (:43). Jesus’ explanation ends with His people safely in the Father’s care: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father … ” (:43). The wheat, followers of Christ, have always been in the Father’s care, but they probably didn’t feel like it all the time.

In our different seasons of life, we want to be safe in the Father’s barn, now! Until then, we feel left out in the field. The young person desiring marriage could easily compromise to marry someone without Christ. The seasoned couple entering retirement, but living sacrificially, looks to the leisure enjoyed by neighbors and wonders what God’s provision looks like.

Jesus’ endpoint reminds us that the harvest is coming. The Father’s care is never-ending. And, resistance is to be expected, but we will endure to the end. Those who “get” Jesus rest in God’s care—despite resistance—while looking to Christ’s return. 

In the meantime, we don’t judge the weeds. (Some might be called to be wheat in time!) We preach the Gospel and allow God to do that inner work of regeneration in peoples’ lives and so do His own judging in His own time. And, we press toward Christ’s return, knowing we’ll be recognized by Jesus.

 

Circle up with your small group or group of close friends. Consider the following questions and so discuss how you ought to live out the truth of this teaching:

What do you find surprising, disturbing or encouraging about this parable? 

Where do you find it most difficult to endure resistance from those in your life who don’t know Christ? 

What does this parable teach you about God and His desires for you? What do you learn about His character? 

How does your final destination of being safely with the Father give hope and meaning to your daily struggle to trust Christ?

 

 

Pharisee and Tax Collector: Luke 18.9-14

What do you think of when you think of a self-made person?

Maybe you think of somebody who lives “off the grid,” Amish style. Or, you might think of somebody who doesn’t depend on Madison or Washington; or somebody who doesn’t punch a clock, because their money works for them; or somebody who is prosperous enough to share with others.

All of this self-dependence is a good thing, if you can get it. But, there’s also a kind of self-dependence that won’t work—especially with God. In fact, it will leave you isolated, from God and from everybody else.

Luke 18 records several parables about coming to God. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (:9-14) talks about the heart attitude we must have when coming to God. As it turns out, all this has much to do with how we feel about other people.

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (:10). Temple worship in the Old Testament included two daily sacrifices. And, while individuals could pray alone at many other times, the picture here is of public worship.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector (:11). Don’t be too crazy hard on this Pharisee. Pharisees were the teachers of Israel. Their job was to model worship and reverence toward God’s Word. This guy got the modeling part right, but it’s his attitude Jesus condemns. Notice how he’s shouldered his way into what was probably the inner court. Now, he stands “by himself,” alone. And, he preaches at the Tax Collector, probably wondering why the most-hated of sinners was in the outer court at all, and not against the eastern wall with the other ceremonially unclean worshippers.

I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get (:12). This is all about comparing himself to others. The Law required fasting once each year on the Day of Atonement. Our Pharisee fasts twice each week. The Law, at that time, required gifts of ten-percent on commodities like oil, grain and wine, but our guy gives ten-percent on everything that enters his mouth—and wants others to know about it. His assumption is that he’s righteous because of what he does. And, what he does is more than what others do and is certainly enough to please God, he thinks.

Notice how the parable leaves him standing by himself. He won’t be accepted by God, and he’s isolated from other people.

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (:13) Perish the thought! But, imagine that Nazi Germany ruled America. And then, there’s an American Nazi who comes to collect your taxes. How do you feel about that guy? That’s how people felt about this tax collector! But, he comes to the Temple. He stands in the outer court. He won’t lift his eyes to God or others. He beasts his chest in remorse, a common practice among women at a funeral, but only seen among men at the account of Jesus’ death on the cross.

But, the Tax Collector falls on God’s mercy.

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other … (:14a). The parable began with two going up. Now, it ends with one man going down. And, this one man is “justified” before God. That’s a special word. It’s related to the Hebrew word “to cover” or “to atone for”. God accepted the Tax Collector, not because he turned up at the Temple to sacrifice, but because he threw himself on God’s mercy in humility.

And, don’t miss the detail at the end. The Tax Collector went “to his house”. That’s where his people are. He came alone, stood alone, but received acceptance by God, and then went down to be with others.

Jesus ends this short parable with two lessons: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (:14b). First lesson: those who lift themselves up (think they’re good enough the way they are and are willing to be judged on what they do), these won’t be accepted by God. And, they’ll remain alone.

Have you ever known church people like that? If that’s been your experience, or if you don’t join much with others in church and you think churches are filled with people like that, I (for one) get what you’re thinking. We at Woodland get that too. In fact, many of us used to be like that. But, this parable shows us that it shouldn’t be that way. It’s not the Gospel, and it doesn’t have to be that way!

Lesson two: those who humble themselves will be lifted up and accepted by God. And, they’ll join others accepted by God.

Here’s the Good News! Since the telling of this parable, Jesus took our offense against God on Himself. He sacrificed His own life, and God accepted this sacrifice. And, when we’re willing to be judged on what Jesus has done, we can come to God. Later in the New Testament the Book of Romans tells us what this means for everybody: … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (3.23-24).

Those who “get” Jesus know they come to God only in humility to be lifted up in Christ. 

A couple of action steps remain for us. In Christ, we get to come to God in humility. If you come to a place like Woodland Community Church, you need to know that you are among sinners. We’re Tax Collectors, not Pharisees. In fact, some of us are recovering from addictions. Some have been in jail. My goodness, some of us even struggle with pride. We like to say that, apart from the work of Jesus, there’s no difference between us and everybody else. And, if you’re ever in the Northwoods and join us, you won’t be judged. God has judged us with Christ, and Jesus’ righteousness is enough for all!

Second action step: we get to come to God with other people. At Woodland, and any other church that “gets” who Jesus is, you don’t have to stand far off. Instead, because of Jesus, you get to stand right in the midst of God’s people.

Now, that’s a good word. So, don’t try to be self-made with God this week. Instead, come to God in humility. And, come into the midst of God’s people, to be lifted up with others in Christ.

 

Rich Man and Lazarus: Luke 16.19-31

Have you ever come to your senses to find that it’s too late? Too late to study for the class … an “F”. Too late to pay the rent … eviction! Too late to talk to your husband or wife … divorce court!

Too late!

Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus combines the artistic landscape of parable with the hard teaching that our choices in this life have eternal and irreversible consequences. And, that we can (and must) respond to Jesus today. But, someday, it will be … too late!

Jesus speaks this parable in Luke 16, a section in the gospel that, on the surface at least, contains a number of passages on money and material possessions. We’re told in verse 14 that “The Pharisees,” Jesus’ hearers, (along with His disciples), “who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him” (ESV). This was the problem of the religious leaders, at least on the surface. As Luke 16.14-17, a kind of bridge passage, then talks about dependence on the Word of God, we can see that material possessions point us to our ultimate dependences. Are we depending on God, or money?

The parable begins in this life (:19-21). A certain Rich Man had everything. Purple clothing, expensive. Linen garments, down to his underwear. The Rich Man feasted himself, inside his palace and without regard for those outside.

Outside the gate of the Rich Man’s palace had been laid a poor man, named Lazarus (a combination of the Hebrew words for “god” and “trust”). Lazarus trusts God. Lazarus is a cripple, covered in sores. He wants only the sop tossed from the Rich Man’s table. But, the dogs get to the scraps before Lazarus. Then, the dogs lick Lazarus’ wounds.

Lazarus is lower than a dog. In the popular religion of the day, he would have been regarded as cursed. The Rich Man, blessed by God.

The parable moves to the next life (:22-23). Here, there is immediate reversal! The poor man dies and goes to Abraham’s side, the place of the righteous dead, depicted in Judaism (as well as by Jesus, Matthew 8) as a banquet. The Rich Man dies and is buried. His earthly life ends well. But, then, he finds himself immediately in Hades, the place of the unrighteous dead. Here, he’s tormented, and (in the creative, parabolic world) he sees Abraham and Lazarus.

The Rich Man negotiates (:24-31). The Rich Man calls to Abraham, “Father Abraham! … I see you have my servant Lazarus there. Send him to help me!” (:24). Interesting is that the Rich Man considers himself on good terms with the great patriarch of the Jewish race. More interesting still is that he clearly recognizes Lazarus. He is guilty and knows it.

Abraham responds: “You took your ease in the last world, and your contempt for Lazarus in his poverty showed your lack of righteousness. Now, there is a great chasm fixed between us … It’s too late!

The Rich Man negotiates again. “Send Lazarus then to my five brothers, so that they won’t come here” (:27). Catch the accusation here. I didn’t know! It isn’t fair! Somebody should have told me about hell, and stuff like that!”

Abraham responds again. “Your brothers have the Bible, along with its teaching about how treatment of the poor indicates heart righteousness.”

The Rich Man responds once more: “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent (:30, ESV). In other words, God’s Word isn’t good enough. They need a miracle! I needed a miracle!”

“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets,” Abraham responds with finality, “Neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (:31, ESV).

Among the lessons we draw from the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is the central teaching that God reveals Himself in His Word, so that nobody can say they didn’t have a fair chance. How many of those who haven’t trusted Christ say they would believe everything in the Bible, if they could only see a miracle? Ah, but the miracles didn’t matter for Old Testament Israel, did they? And, following Jesus’ teaching here, even His own resurrection won’t prove the truth of God’s Word to those who don’t want God.

By contrast, those who “get” Jesus recognize their accountability to God from His Word and depend on Jesus … before it’s too late. 

So, take a bit of time to read through this (in many ways) most curious of Jesus’ parables. Then, do something curious yourself. Maybe, you should take a stroll through a cemetery. Give thanks for those buried there. Thank God for your own short life. Remember that, short of Jesus’ second coming, nobody escapes this life alive. And, take joy in the Gospel, knowing that those who trust Christ will be with Him at the moment of their death (Luke 23.24; Phil 1.23). This is Good News in this sobering parable!

After your reflection in the cemetery, include the Gospel in regular conversation with others. God’s Word is powerful, and our mental and spiritual worldview maps should include every part of life. If you eat, include others in your thanks. If it rains, tell your friends how God is caring for you. Don’t be like the Rich Man who only cared for what he could see in this life. Our existence includes this life and the next. And, the way we go about handling material possessions and treating the poor indicates a great deal about what or whom we’re trusting.

Finally, circle up with some others. Read the parable again and talk through these questions:

What about this parable do you find alarming or disturbing? Do you like it? Why or why not? 

What does this parable reveal about what we’re tempted to trust in? What about the excuses of the Rich Man? Are we at all like him? 

How much do you value the Gospel that is included in God’s Word? Do you think of God’s revelation of Himself in His Word as your final authority? Or, are you looking or waiting for something else before you trust God?

What are some other practical things you’ve done that help remind you of the brevity of life? 

How have you been able to include the Gospel in your regular, normal and “non-weird” conversation with those who don’t yet trust God? 

 

The Persistent Widow: Luke 18.1-8

Have you ever felt powerless?

Maybe, you put a charge on a credit card that you later couldn’t repay. Or, you told a friend something you wished you hadn’t. Or, you were with a hurting person, and you just didn’t know what to do.

Terrible feeling, isn’t it? Made you weary, didn’t it?

The Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18 is a story for those who are weary in their powerlessness. Jesus tells this parable as part of a larger conversation with the Pharisees that begins in 17.20. Then, He pulls back (apparently) to explain His teaching to His disciples.

The wider conversation involves the coming of the Kingdom of God and when it will come. Naturally, the Pharisees (and, probably, everybody else) thought that Messiah would ride in, kick out the Romans and be ruler of the whole earth. They weren’t far from wrong. But, they didn’t factor in the cross!

Jesus responds by teaching that the Kingdom is present with the King, who is “in their midst” (7.21). And, Jesus teaches that the fulness of the Kingdom will only come after Messiah has suffered (7.24-25), after which time evil will be destroyed (7.27-30).

The Pharisees’ problem (and ours, sometimes) is that they didn’t recognize Jesus’ two comings. Till Messiah returns God’s people will suffer and wait expectantly for His coming … “the days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it” (7.22).

In the parable itself, we have an unrighteous judge who neither fears God nor “respects” man (ESV). The word can mean “be ashamed”. In the shame-based eastern culture of the parable, the judge makes no effort to help others save face. He almost certainly takes bribes, and he doesn’t care.

The Widow is the other character. In the man-dominated world of the Middle Eastern court system, the fact that she must represent herself indicates that she has no man in her life. She is certainly too poor to pay a bribe. Perhaps, there’s a dispute over her late husband’s estate. A state of injustice exists.

She does have one advantage: she can abuse the judge! Because nobody takes her seriously, she can stand on the perimeter of the court and hurl insults at the judge. A man would be kicked out. Nobody cares about the widow.

The judge finally gives in, because he fears the widow will “beat me down”. The term is one taken from boxing. It means, literally, “to beat black and blue”. “Oi weh!” we imagine the judge exclaiming. “Enough already! Bring her here. What does she want?”

In Jesus’ commentary from verses 6-8, two lessons and a question come from this parable. In the character of the judge we learn that unlike the unrighteous judge, God will bring justice to His people. The logic is taken from a Rabbinic rhetorical teaching method, the Hebrew name for which we would translate as “from the light to heavy”. It’s a “if this … then how much more?” kind of argument. So, if even an unrighteous judge—who doesn’t care about God or people—will reward perseverance with justice, how much more will the one, true God give justice to His people He has chosen?

The second lesson comes from the Widow. Through her character we learn that the LORD will be patient with believer’s persistence in prayer while they endure injustice until Jesus comes again in power to vindicate them.

“Will not God give justice to his elect?” Yes, He will. “Will he delay long over them?” No, He won’t, but ” … he will give justice to them speedily” (verse 8a).

But, will God’s people persist in prayer till Jesus comes back? “Will he find faith on earth” (verse 8b). That’s the question.

Like the Pharisees, we sometimes mistake this time between Jesus’ two comings for the fulness of the kingdom. We experience powerlessness, and we say “Why does God not change my situation now?!”

In so complaining, we forget that Jesus hasn’t come back yet. And, why? Second Peter 3.8-9 helps.

But, do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (ESV).

God is yet gathering “the elect” to Himself. But, until Jesus comes again, we persist in prayer. What keeps us from growing weary is knowing that God is not like the unrighteous judge. In fact, since the time of the telling of this parable, Jesus has taken up residence with the Father, again. Romans 8 describes how He intercedes for us:

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than than, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 

That’s really Good News! Not only are we, unlike the Widow, not unrepresented in court. But, Jesus Himself represents us before God! Knowing this keeps us from losing heart.

Those who “get” Jesus persist in prayer knowing God hears (now) and will deliver them finally and completely, very soon. 

 

Find somebody to discuss this parable with. Talk through these questions:

What is the hardest part for you to take in about this parable? 

 

Where do you struggle in your times of prayer with God? 

 

What about the work of Jesus is most important for you in not growing weary? 

 

What methods for prayer have you found helpful? Prayer journals? A certain kind of list-making or note-taking? What would you recommend to others to help them organize their times of prayer with the Lord and help them be persistent? 

 

 

 

“Fit for the King” (The Wedding Feast): Matthew 22.1-14

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

Mine might have been the Friday night, now some fifteen years ago, when I was to speak to a gathering of young people near L’viv, western Ukraine. My translator had earlier invited me to the event by telling me I was to “come as you are,” in regards to dress. A very fine American idiom.

But, when Slavic actually wheeled up in his Russian Lada, he was “dressed to the nines,” in suit and tie. Another fine idiom—one that doesn’t go at all with “come as you are”. I sported a windbreaker, Dockers, and (if I remember right) tennis shoes.

“Too late to change,” Slavic said. And, an hour later, we arrived—not at the venue for a youth gathering, but at the Friday evening service of the largest, the oldest, the most formal baptist church in that region of western Ukraine. And, I was the speaker.

Slavic took me to the basement where the senior leadership sat, circled in solemn prayer. They were not dressed “come as you are”; they wore their finest.

The prayer ended, and the oldest and senior man inspected me. After learning that I was “alone” in life (that is, single) and pronouncing me “too old to be alone,” he finished encouraging me and came to the point.

“We have a problem,” he announced, straightening himself in his chair. “In order to preach, you must wear a jacket …!”

There it was. It occurred to me to ask him if he “had a mouse in his pocket”. This wouldn’t have communicated, but WE clearly did not have a problem. Instead, I hung my head in shame.

At that moment, one of the young leaders had an idea. This man went to the closet and pulled out a suit jacket. It was white with blue stripes and didn’t match anything in the building. They called it the “general use jacket.” They kept it on hand, they said, for American visitors. I tried it on. It fit, and the evening was saved …

In that particular place, the “general use jacket” became the means by which I was allowed to address that particular group. In the Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22.1-14) another means becomes necessary to enter God’s presence.

The story in the parable takes place in an imaginative landscape involving a king, two sets of invited guests, and one unfit guest. These fictive characters point to the real events surrounding Jesus’ ministry, involving the rejection of His own people, the Jewish nation, as well as true followers, both Jews and non-Jews.

National invitation with rejection (:1-7). In the first scene, the king throws a banquet for his son. All the typical guests are invited, but to no avail. They mistreat his servants, and the king responds in judgment.

The wedding banquet imagery clearly points to Christ. Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb … (Rev 19). Likewise, the rejection of the servants points to Israel’s treatment of the prophets. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her … (Matt 23). Finally, the judgement received foreshadows that received by the nation at the hands of Titus the Roman in 70 A.D.

International invitation with acceptance (:8-10). The second scene opens with the king’s servants now inviting new guests. They find these on the “main highway,” a word indicating the road out of town where those not belonging to the city congregate. … the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall see my glory, Isaiah 66 says. Those gathered now are “good and bad.” That is, they aren’t selected for their own moral virtues. They come because they’re asked.

And so, the wedding hall is filled. And, we can’t not think of Revelation 7: After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes … 

Rejection of an unfit guest (:11-14). The parable might end here. But, Jesus throws in a twist for those who might think that God has lowered His standard of holiness.

The king in the parable surveys his banquet hall and finds a man wearing no wedding clothes. The king calls him “Friend,” but questions him all the same: “How did you get in here without a wedding garment?”

The man is speechless and without excuse. He is immediately expelled. The garments are the key to the parable. While some commentators claim that the host of such a banquet might have furnished his guests with a garment himself, this can’t be supported from the parable. At the very least, the man ought to have changed into a new garment. The rejected guest was invited, but has by-passed the means to enter. He has taken advantage of the generosity of his host.

Jesus’ point now becomes clear: though God invites everybody to come to Him, only those who come through the proper means will enter His presence.

But, what is the proper means? How do we come fit for the king? Jesus leaves the question in the air, yet to be answered by His first listeners. We, however, have an advantage, as we look back at the cross through the New Testament.

Those who “get” Jesus come to God through the fitness (the righteousness) of Jesus. 

Like the unfit guest, we have no righteousness of our own. Isaiah 64 makes the point: … all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. While invited to come to God, we’re unclothed while we’re yet in our sin.

Ah, but here’s the Good News! Jesus lived a fit life in our place. And, we receive His righteousness by trusting Him. As Romans 3 says, This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe …

The message of the story is that we may come to God as we are. But, we must come through Jesus.

This is a good word in a day when we often hear the Gospel expressed in the language of the giveaway. “It’s free! Just believe,” we like to say.

“It’s grace, and our salvation cost Jesus His life,” we’d be better off saying. And, with that heart of gratitude, we may truly “come as we are” to Christ and so be “fit for the king”.

 

Circle up with a group and consider the following questions:

Have you ever read this parable before? How has your understanding of this teaching of Jesus’ changed with this reading? 

 

Does it bother you that the unfit guest is cast from the banquet? What might this third scene be telling us about the seriousness of being rightly clothed in Christ? 

 

How does this parable change the way you talk about the work of Jesus? 

 

What is a good way to encourage people to trust Jesus without making the work of Jesus sound or feel “cheap”? 

 

 

The Good Samaritan: Luke 10.25-37

Do you have any enemies? I hope not … Do you have anybody you’d rather not serve? Different question, isn’t it?

The Good Samaritan is in contention for the best-known passage in all Scripture. Everybody, including completely secular people, thinks they’ve understood this teaching of Jesus. But Jesus never told a parable that wasn’t a cliff-hanger. Every parable requires a life-response. Do we “get it”? Do we “get” Jesus?

Jesus told this parable in context. Luke 10.25-37 recounts Jesus’ dialogue with a lawyer—a theologian of the day. The dialogue unfolds in two rounds—two questions and two answers per round. Each round starts with a peek at the lawyer’s heart: he wants to “put [Jesus] to the test” (:25); he desires to “justify himself” (29). At issue, big picture, is the life of God. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks.

“Nothing,” Jesus could have answered. “It’s the inheritance of Israel received by faith and unearned, like every inheritance.” Perhaps, this would have pleased the lawyer. But, Jesus is always pressing into the heart of the matter, and into hearts. He takes the lawyer’s bait, knowing that the lawyer probably considered him soft on the law.

“What is written in the Law?” Jesus asks. The lawyer responds with a perfect fusion of Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Likely, he’d heard Jesus give this very answer (Matthew 22).

“You’ve got it!” Jesus says, in so many words. “Do this and you will live.” Notice, Jesus has changed the topic from inheriting eternal life to the living of life itself. There’s also a life-response now required of the lawyer. The man wants to “do” something, and he now has his assignment. But, before he does, he wants to renegotiate.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. Very likely, he expected Jesus to separate his relatives and the friends of Israel from the foreigners and the nation’s enemies. What he gets is a story.

The parable is well-known. There’s the Jewish man (assumedly) who is stripped, beaten and robbed by bandits. Kenneth Bailey (Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, 1983) notes that the first of seven scenes establishes a pattern of coming … doing … going.  After the bandits, the priest and the Levite will, likewise “come,” but then (not)”do”. And then, they will “go”.

The Samaritan is different. He will come and then do all that the others have not. Unlike the Levite, likely returning from performing religious rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem, he will treat the wounded man, pouring on wine (reminiscent of the recent religious work of the Levite). Unlike the priest, who almost certainly rode a horse, the Samaritan will give the wounded man a ride on his “own” horse. Unlike both, he risked having his baggage and other animals robbed. More, he would have endured ridicule at the inn where he took the wounded man. (Imagine a Taliban fighter turning up at a U.S. Army checkpoint with a wounded child.)

At the center of the seven scene parable, there is verse 33: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.”

Jesus reenters the dialogue with the lawyer. “Which of these three, do you think, proved a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

The lawyer knows, but he can’t quite say it. “Samari … The one who showed mercy,” he says, instead.

“You go, and do likewise,” Jesus concludes. We’ll never know, if the lawyer “got it,” or not.

But, do we “get” Jesus? 

 

We’ve been learning in our teaching times at Woodland that the lessons of the parables can be discerned through the main figures of each story.

In The Good Samaritan the combined figures of the priest and the Levite teach us that religion sometimes hinders love for God and service for neighbor. There’s a tendency for church people to think that because we’ve celebrated and learned and given our gifts that we “have done” (think of the lawyer’s original question) what is necessary for life. But, God has a mission. Really big picture here, God’s mission involves the buying back of all creation through the work of Jesus, this received by faith. It’s not that God has a mission for His people, it’s more like God has a people for His mission. Churches like Woodland, then, exist within Gods mission for the benefit of their non-members. A real heart for God sometimes looks pretty ordinary, like binding up somebody’s wounds, because we love God.

From the Samaritan, we learn that we must serve everybody without distinction. This is the point usually made, but (like the lawyer), we like to parse the answer. Secular people want to stop at good works. The result is a Gospel-less Y.M.C.A. religion—fine exercise club at an affordable price, but hardly the life of God. Church people, sometimes, want to stop at speaking the Gospel. Now, to be sure, Gospel witness is no less than verbal proclamation. But, the “half-dead” man of the parable could not hear. Surely, love for God and neighbor looks like ministry in word and deed.

But, now, finally (and usually overlooked), we learn from the wounded man in the road that even my enemy is my neighbor. This, in context, is the point of the passage. The sticking point for the lawyer in the wider dialogue didn’t involve what God’s Word actually said; it involved the identity of those the lawyer wanted to love. Some people, yes, but everybody, no.

The wounded man in the parable woke to learn that he’d been saved by none other than his sworn enemy. And, he learned his lesson, not by doing, but by receiving.

How like us. This final point takes us to the Gospel: … but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5.8 … 10, ESV).

Like the man in the road, those of us who know Christ have been saved by one who did not wait to be reconciled to us before bringing us to the life of God. Jesus came … and did … and stayed. Now, we go and “do likewise”.

Those who “get” Jesus are those who express their love for God by loving even their enemies. 

 

Circle up with somebody with whom you can share this parable. Discuss the following questions:

How have you grown through this, most recent, reading of The Good Samaritan? 

 

Do you have any enemies? Whom are you being led to serve, as a result of this parable? 

 

What does this parable mean for a church like Woodland? How does this teaching move us outside of our church family and into our community? 

 

What’s the life-response that Jesus is asking of you? 

 

 

Our Prodigal God: Luke 15.11-32

Who’s with Jesus? That’s the question we’re asking this summer at Woodland. Some people in the gospel accounts “got” Him, recognized Him, identified with Him. Others missed Him.

True then, true today.

We looked, last week, at two and a-half parables—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Lost Son (Act I, 15.11-24). Three separate parables, one point: Rejoice with me!” the major figures of the three parables say together.

In the most complex of the three parables, the lost son, experiencing his father’s grace, admits his unworthiness, accepts his father’s love and enters into his father’s joy. And, through the figure of the Younger Son, we learn that God’s terms for reconciliation includes grace that preempts our efforts to establish ourselves in His favor.

Wonderful as it is, there’s still more.

Unlike the first part of the parable, Act II (:25-32) takes places in speeches. Listen to the points made, watch how the text is arranged. Jesus hasn’t even made his main point yet to His immediate audience of “sinners” and Pharisees (see Luke 15.1-2). The “smack-down” yet awaits.

Even as the Younger Son has returned from the fields, the Older Son approaches the house, likewise from the fields (:25). Notice, he comes last, like a good foreman shutting down the operation for the day, like a diligent executive, shutting off the lights. As he does, he hears symphonia (the mixed-voiced sounds of laughter and feasting). The fattened calf is slaughtered, “quickly,” we’re told earlier, in time that the workers in the fields might celebrate that evening. “Why was I not invited?” we know he asks.

The Older Son arrives at the house and asks for news (:26-27). We note, along with commentator Kenneth Bailey in Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Eerdmans, 1983) that this is not an American farmhouse, entered through the side and the kitchen. This is a Middle Eastern house with a wall dividing the lane from a private courtyard that stands in front of the house. The invited guests would have been inside. The Older Son stands outside, along with the children and the hangers-on and “keeps on” (imperfect tense) asking for news.

When he learns all that has transpired, the Older Son responds (:28a). He becomes angry and won’t enter the feast. He doesn’t want to distribute his father’s remaining wealth that he supposes to be his. But more, and here we credit Bailey once again, there was a custom throughout the Middle East that the oldest son of a hosting nobleman would stand in the doorway barefoot. It is as though the nobleman was saying to his guests, “Even my oldest son is your servant.”

And again, what was Jesus criticized for, in the opening verses of the section (:1-2). Hosting sinners, right?

The Father leaves his dinner guests, humbling himself, to enter the courtyard, to plead with his son (:28b). The Older Son responds to the Father. “Look (you!) … ” This is hardly the way to address the paterfamilias. “For these many years I’ve served you …” This isn’t son talk at all, but slave talk.

“You never gave me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” the Older Son continues (:30, ESV).

Note the emotional distance from the family: “This son of YOURS.” And, note the Older Son’s concept of joy that includes a good time with friends and that doesn’t include the Younger Brother or the Father. He’ll have meat without family fellowship; he’ll work to take the benefits of sonship, while living on his own terms. He’ll establish himself apart from the Father. And what was the sin of the Younger Brother?

Tim Keller, in his The Prodigal God (Dutton, 2008), in which he interacts with Bailey’s work and to which I’m much indebted for this reading of the parable, remarks at this point,

The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness,  but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father (35).

The Father responds to the Older Son (:31-32). “Son,” he says, in a unique use of the word (much like I speak to my two sons when their fishing lines are tangled, but they choose to cast them anyway), “You have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Here, the Father reminds the Older Son that he, the son, is the heir. But, the Older Son is not content. He would, like his younger brother, have the right to distribute his father’s wealth. Is he not likewise saying, “I wish you were dead!”?

“We had to celebrate and rejoice,” the Father responds (NAS reading). Or, literally from the original, “It was necessary to celebrate and rejoice.” Necessary for whom? we might ask.

” … for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (:32).

And so, the Older Son, experiencing his father’s grace, claims that which he perceives to have earned, judges his younger brother, rejects his father’s love, and—by refusing to enter the feast—demonstrates that all these years he has been lost in his father’s house.

Thus ends the parable … Or, does it?

 

We noted last week that a parable is much like a joke. Both have a response. To the joke, we laugh (hopefully). To the parable, there is a life response. What response would Jesus ask of His audience? And, of us?

Among Kenneth Bailey’s contributions is his structuring of the second half of this parable. He notes (191) that the scenes move from the Older Son drawing near the feast, to the reason for the feast (spoken by the servant), to the Father’s pleading, to the Older Son’s first complaint. Then, the second half unfolds in mirror image fashion—the second complaint, the continued pleading of the Father, the summary of the reason for the feast, and then …??? What would we expect? Why, we’d expect the Older Son to enter into the feast!

That would be the perfect fairy tale ending the form demands. It might go something like: the Older Son, upon experiencing his father’s grace, entered the house, reconciled with his brother, joined in the music and feasting, and so his father once again had two sons. 

But, our imagined epilogue doesn’t end that way. I’ll credit a missionary to Egypt named Mike Kuhn with another possible ending to the parable: And the Older Son, spurning his father’s grace, raised his staff and struck his father over the head. And, while the Young Son and the guests looked on, beat his father repeatedly until his father was dead. 

That’s how the parable ended in the life of Jesus. And, it was in killing Jesus that the Pharisees and other “older brothers” showed what they really thought of God’s grace.

But, there’s something else missing. How about the theme of seeking? In the The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin the hero was the shepherd and the woman who assumed the burden of restoration, until the lost one was restored. Who was to do the seeking in The Lost Son? Could it not have been the Older Son?

Philippians 2.5-8 tells us that Jesus ” … did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Jesus is the older brother that the younger brother in the parable never had. And, as such, He is our older brother. In leaving the Father’s house, He humbled Himself, united us back to the family through the cross and then dispersed the Father’s wealth.

If a parable requires a life response, what is it that the Father is asking us to do? How about imitate Christ in His humility? How about going in search of our lost brothers to invite them to the feast, through Jesus and the Gospel? How about being “prodigal” in grace?

In The Prodigal God Keller reminds us that “prodigal” means “reckless, extravagant, having spent everything”. Have we not misunderstood the word? And, in being glad that the Younger Son finally got it together and thinking that the Older Son needed to shape up, have we often misunderstood the parable?

The real hero of the parable is the Father who graciously, generously, prodigiously disperses His riches to all who would come to the feast.

And so, having come to know the heart of the Father, we must seek others with whom to share the Father’s joy. 

 

After spending some time with Luke 15.11-32, find some others with whom to discuss these questions:

How does this reading of the parable challenge the way you’ve always understood it? 

Where is God asking you to be “prodigal” in your understanding and display of grace? 

Who was it that came looking for you in a distant country before you knew Christ? 

Whom do you need to seek?