The little city of Bethlehem was a place of great significance in the Old Testament scriptures. The prophet Samuel would anoint David as King of Israel in his own hometown of Bethlehem. The prophet Micah would predict Bethlehem to be the birthplace of the one who was “from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). Indeed, Bethlehem, the “House of Bread”, would become the birthplace of Jesus, the Bread of Life (John 6:35).
Between the two gospel accounts in Matthew 2 and Luke 2 the wise men knew the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, the religious rulers and lawyers in the temple knew he would come there and Herod knew. It was for this reason that Herod had killed all boys 2 years old and younger in Bethlehem. In John 7:42 we see that it was common knowledge among the people that the Messiah would come through Bethlehem.
Appearing to the poor shepherds, whose homes were the open fields, the announcement of the angels was made to the marginal people (Luke 2:8). Yet the announcement was quite spectacular. The angel announces to the shepherds that the baby. born in the manger in Bethlehem is 1) king David’s descendent, 2) the Savior of the world, 3) the Messiah King and 4) the Lord, God.
In the end the real challenge for the reader of Luke’s gospel is whether or not to believe. Perhaps one of the most telling indicators of whether or not we believe is whether or not we are broadcasting this grand hope to others.
As we prepare to conclude our study of Luke 9-19 we are once again confronted with the issue of riches and wealth. Reflecting on the journey to Jerusalem we remember that there was a rich landowner who foolishly planned to build bigger barns without considering the One who determined whether or not he would live to enjoy it (Luke 12:13-21). Then there was the rich young ruler who could not part with his wealth to follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-30). This parable says something to us about our wealth and its use from God’s perspective.
First, Jesus underlines how important it is that we use God’s financial blessings for the work of the kingdom. Ten servants are given a coin each with the instruction to multiply it’s value. We are told of three who were noteworthy in regard to their obedience and we assume the other seven recipients fell somewhere in between the extremes that the ruler discovered upon his return.
KINGDOMS AND KINGS
Second, Jesus refers to a king who goes away to be crowned king and then return to destroy those who refused to submit to his rule. Some have suggested that there had been a similar situation with Herod Archelaus that would be recalled in Judea’s recent history. From Christ’s perspective, however, what begins in Jerusalem with His suffering, death and resurrection will come to its climax when He returns.
FEAR OF FAILURE
Finally, there is the one servant who is afraid and who does nothing with the coin his master had given to him. God’s wealth is not given to be unproductively hoarded and hidden out of fear for losing it. In the parable he loses his mina to the one who was extraordinarily productive.
Kingdom people are risk takers whose investments range from those who make 1000% to 500% to others who will simply collect interest at the bank and profit at all points in between. The key is that the Gospel always bears fruit wherever it goes.
Every follower of Christ has a stake in growing the kingdom!
In Luke’s gospel there are many warnings about the spiritual danger of money, riches and wealth.* In three of those instances there were positive outcomes with the son who comes home after spending his wealth until it was gone (Luke 15:11-32), the tax collector who was justified before God as he acknowledged his brokenness and his need for God’s mercy (Luke 18:9-14) and in our present story about a little man who wanted to see Jesus (Luke 19:1-10).
In each of these positive examples there is a common theme of repentance that is absent in the others. This is in contrast to, for example, the Pharisees who, Luke tells us, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14) and the rich young ruler who was saddened by Jesus’ instruction to sell everything he had to give to the poor. This would be necessary for him to be able to follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-30).
TAX COLLECTORS IN LUKE
In first century Judea tax collectors were among the lowest of the low in the Jewish social stratus, in spite of their wealth. This was because of the nature of their task to represent the Jew’s Roman oppressors and collect taxes while adding a little extra for themselves. In their neighbor’s eyes, this was the equivalent of robbery and a reminder that they lived under the thumb of a merciless, repressive, foreign, Gentile government.
Jewish hatred for their fellow citizens who served as tax collectors had dramatic implications for their place in society. Because of the nature of their income, for example, they were forbidden to give alms in the temple or to pay the temple tax (“Tax Collectors” in JewishEncyclopedia.com).
When we compare ourselves to the tax collector, however, there are ways in which we are not much different. Everyone wrestles with the blessings of God and how to use them. In the story of Zacchaeus, we find that even the lowest of the low in society have a place in the kingdom of God.
So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
Two people crying out to God for mercy: a tax collector and a blind man. These two stories form the bookends for five scenarios in Luke 18. Each of these scenes point to our need for a Savior.
TAX COLLECTORS (Luke 18:9-14)
Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to those who were comfortable in their own righteousness before God and who looked down upon everyone else. The Pharisee serves as the foil for the star attraction: an humble tax collector, hated as a traitor by Jewish society, far away in the shadows of the temple, beating his breast with his head bowed, crying out to God: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus tells us that this man went home justified before God.
CHILDREN (Luke 18:15-17)
Total dependence upon God’s extension of mercy to broken and contrite people who readily admit that they cannot make it on their own. Kind-of like…a little child, looking up to his or her parent. That’s what it looks like!
No pretense. No resistance. Absent self-sufficiency. Transparent trust. What better example could there be of what God is looking for in us? “I tell you the truth, you must accept the kingdom of God as if you were a child, or you will never enter it” (Luke 18:17).
THE RICH (Luke 18:18-30)
Just like the rich man who was wrapped up in his good fortune and anticipating a life of ease (Luke 12:13-21, NCV) so this young ruler was looking for one more religious practice to enhance his resume for eternal life. Jesus’ advice was simple: “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor….” He said, “Then come follow Me.” Saddened, the rich young ruler walks away as Jesus talks about camels going through eyes of needles. Letting go of our own sense of importance is so hard!
So, the disciples are mystified! If a Law-abiding rich man, obviously blessed by God, cannot be saved, then how can any of us possibly hope to obtain eternal life? Jesus affirms that it is impossible without God’s intervention.
GOD’S INTERVENTION: A CROSS (Luke 18:31-34)
Jesus describes the upcoming events that are looming on the horizon as He anticipates His arrival in Jerusalem, including His own death and resurrection. The starkly explicit details cause the disciples to totally miss the point of the Suffering Servant.
A BLIND MAN (Luke 18:35-42)
Wondering about all of the commotion, a blind man asks what is going on. Told, simply, that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, the blind man connects the dots and realizes that “Jesus, the Son of David” is here! Taking a common name and realizing that Jesus’ true identity is the anticipated Messiah, he cries out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy upon me.”
Jesus asks the blind man what he wishes for Jesus to do for him. Of all of things for which he could have asked, he, instead, reaches for the stars and asks to be able to see. As He is healing the blind man Jesus declares that he has been saved by his faith.
The Pharisees, the rich young ruler and the disciples cannot yet comprehend the cosmic nature of Jesus’ mission and purpose. Yet, just ask a child or a blind man and they know what it means to trust in God alone.
In the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus is targeting a specific audience of those “…who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else…” (Luke 18:9). In our struggle to obey Jesus, it is important to keep our acts of righteousness in perspective lest we wind up in the Pharisee’s camp.
WORKS VERSUS FRUITS
“Hungering and thirsting for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6) is something Jesus challenges each of us to do in order to be blessed by following Him. However, this may mean different things to each of us depending upon several circumstances. For example, the new Christian will need to discontinue ungodly practices in order to conform to the image of Christ. Alternatively, to the seasoned Christian this may mean a deeper walk with the Lord in spiritual disciplines practiced over time.
The common danger for all is elevating the changes we make in the name of Christ to a means for measuring our personal righteousness. This is especially dangerous when we begin comparing our personal levels of maturity to those around us.
In his prayer, the Pharisee thanks God for blessing him with his own moral behaviors and over-the-top religious and ceremonial practices. This is a good thing; right? Jesus is clear. If this man believed that these admirable qualities justified him before God, he was dead wrong (Luke 18:14). As Jesus had said to the Pharisees earlier, “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15, NIV).
CRYING OUT TO GOD FOR MERCY
The justified tax collector had a much different perspective. Recognizing his poverty of spirit and mourning over his sin (see Matthew 5:3-4, NIV), he realized–and Jesus affirmed–that his only hope for justification would be found in God’s mercy (Luke 18:13-14, NIV).
As the apostle Paul would write in Romans 5:9 (NIV): “…we have now been justified by his [Christ’s] blood.” Not, “Christ’s blood AND doing the right things correctly” but “by Christ’s blood”…alone!
What we do is the fruit of what Christ has done for us. It is not about doing the right things in the right way in order to be justified. It is because we trust in Christ, Who did the right things in the right way that we are justified. Understanding these distinctions has incredible ramifications for how we live every day and how we perceive those around us.
Perhaps Luke was concerned about Theophilus and his fellow believers (see Luke 1:1-4) as they mature in their Christian faith. Becoming confident in their walk with the Lord, perhaps they, too, ran the risk of emphasizing the wrong things in the shadow of the cross.
Certainly, we all would do well to heed Jesus’ warning about putting so much emphasis upon doing the right things in the right way that they, themselves begin to overshadow the cross. As the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians (who struggled mightily with this understanding), “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2, NIV).
Note: The following sermon is preceded by reflections upon the Lord’s Supper and by a reading of Luke 18:9-14.
Christians have differing opinions about many things. But, to be called ‘Christian’ means that a single conviction is common to all: Jesus is Lord! For this to be true, however, means that we do more than pay lip service to this truth; but, that we allow Him to change us day-by-day to be more like Him in every aspect of our lives. This is the truth by which we live. This is the message that we share with the world: Jesus is Lord!
My mother would say this to us every morning when we would leave for school. It was a gentle, daily reminder that this is to be a joyful event to which we look with anticipation. If we live as though He may come at any moment, we will be glad to see Him when that day arrives.
HOW WILL JESUS COME BACK?
Just like today, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time had multiple theories about when God’s kingdom would arrive. At the outset of our passage today, Jesus is clear: “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). Indeed, here was God Himself in Jesus Christ, standing before them, announcing that the kingdom of God was near! It is right here, right now, in your midst!
FOUR STATEMENTS ABOUT HIS RETURN
First, The Kingdom of God Is Here, In Our Midst (Luke 17:20-21)
There is no need to go looking for it any longer because Jesus has brought the kingdom to us. The lessons learned from the translation discussion of whether the kingdom is “within you” (KJV) or “in your midst” (NIV) is interesting because each understanding carries intriguing meanings and insights to ponder.
Second, The Kingdom of God Will Be Understood With Jesus’ Passion (Luke 17:22-25).
The keys to the kingdom that Jesus announced upon Peter’s confession (Matthew 16:13-20) would issue in the new age on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The kingdom was fully realized in the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, taking up residence in the hearts of God’s people who would assemble together as the church. These people of the kingdom would look forward to the day of Christ’s return.
Third, Jesus’ Coming Will Happen Suddenly, Without Warning (Luke 17:26-37)
Natural and historical catastrophic events provide great metaphors for understanding the suddenness of His return. Jesus’ examples detail flashes of lightening across the sky, Noah and the flood, Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah. Just another normal day until, suddenly, everything changed.
Fourth, When Jesus Comes Back, God Will Deliver Justice (Luke 18:1-8)
The story of the persistent widow places stress on the widow who drives her king nuts in search of justice until he finally relents. The emphasis is not upon the moral character of the judge but, rather, upon the persistent pleading of the widow (Luke 18:1). When Jesus returns, will He find anyone still looking forward to His coming (Luke 18:8)?
Christians in churches around the world joyfully anticipate the day of Jesus’ return. While there is much discussion about what that day–and the days to follow–will be like, Jesus make is clear in these verses:
There will be no warning or signs preceding the day.
The kingdom of God has already taken up residence on this earth since Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and ascension.
There are times in life when the things that divide us become insignificant. Times of suffering are one of those. It is often said that “misery loves company”; but, in the midst of suffering, our misery can also lead us to forget our prejudices and bigotry. This would appear to be the case of the 10 Lepers in Luke 17:11-19.
FAITH FROM A DISTANCE
Luke reminds us, here, that Jesus is still on His way to Jerusalem. As He and his disciples enter a village, somewhere on the border between Galilee and Samaria, ten lepers cried out to Him from a distance: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
The reason they cried out from a distance was because the Law had specified what lepers must do:
45 “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.
Leviticus 13 gives priests the tools for diagnosing various skin diseases, including the dreaded leprosy. The next chapter (Leviticus 14) gives the priests detailed information about what to do when the diseased leper seems to have been cured.
So, from a distance, it took faith to cry out to Jesus for help. It took faith to realize that Jesus was more than just a man; but, rather, their “Master”. It took faith to choose to obey Jesus’ command to go show themselves to the priest before they had actually been healed.
WE ALL LIVE BY FAITH
Whether one believes in God or not, life is lived in faith that the sun will rise and set, that the seasons will change every year, that gravity works and that the people coming from the opposite direction on a 2-lane road will stay in their lane. The distinction between the believer and the non-believer is simply to whom we give credit for the predictability in life. The fact is that predictability is our day-to-day normal, whether we choose to believe that it is by chance or by divine direction.
So, it would not be appropriate to say that the lepers were not moved by faith. Rather than sitting in hopeless helplessness, they chose to get up and walk towards the city where the priest would be ready to receive them. Their faith would be immediately rewarded as they began to realize that they were, indeed, rapidly shedding the effects of this horrid disease and returning to health. It would be understandable that, rejoicing, they would run as fast as they could into town to share the good news of their healing.
THERE IS A FAITH THAT SAVES
Then there is the one leper who, likely, could not run to the Jewish priest with the others because he had lost one curse only to be confronted with another; for he was a Samaritan (See “Samaritans” in Bible History Online). Reading a bit between the lines, I suppose that he was now unable to go with his friends of shared misery. The new normal had set in. Now he was contemplating going back to his Samaritan village alone.
In this moment of mixed feelings, this man suddenly realized he needed to say “Thank You” to Jesus. To this Samaritan falling at Jesus’ feet, Jesus tells him he was made well by way of his faith. All of them listened to Jesus and did as they were told. But one remembered Who it was that healed him and he worshiped Him. Faith!
Of all of the touching elements of this story, perhaps the most poignant to me is that when the healed Samaritan fell at Jesus’ feet and worshiped Him, Jesus never told him to stop. If anyone were to run up to me and fall at my feet I would promptly tell them to get up. I might even look around quickly to make sure no one saw what had just happened.
But not Jesus. He received the praise of the Samaritan, wondering why the others did not join him in giving glory to God Who had chosen to dwell in their midst. The extension of Jesus’ questions to us are convicting: with all of the ‘normal’ of our daily existence, how ready are we to give glory to God for our blessings?
“Increase our faith!” the disciples said. Something Jesus had said convinced them that it was imperative. “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:4). Is this even possible for a person to do?
DISCIPLES, CROWDS AND PHARISEES
Two of Jesus’ constants in Luke’s gospel are the disciples and the crowds. Punctuated throughout are the Pharisees who seem to be on the margins, criticizing Jesus for hanging out with the wrong people (Luke 15:1-2) and setting up false dichotomies between, for example, serving God or serving money (Luke 16:13). Whether it was true or whether it was an anecdotal observation of the Pharisees, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it” (Luke 16:16, NIV).
CHASMS AND MILLSTONES
The chasm that separated Lazarus in Paradise and the rich man in Hades (Luke 16:19-31, NIV) was obvious in real life between the religious elite and everyone else. They had become so ‘righteous’ that no one could realistically aspire to their level before God. The ‘sinners’ of the world gave up trying. That is, until John and Jesus started preaching the good news of repentance and the kingdom of God. Now they were storming the gates!
In the minds of the religious leaders, I would suppose, access to God was through the Law. These sinners and tax collectors break the Law daily. Therefore, Jesus–if He was truly a righteous Man–should know that He should be hanging out with them and not with the common ‘sinners’ and hated tax collectors (Luke 15:1-2, NIV). The stories of the lost lamb, the lost coin and the lost son drove home the point that God’s love and the Law are not mutually exclusive approaches to people; indeed, they complement each other!
The fact that this did not make sense to them was tragic, from Jesus’ perspective. This is obvious to the pleading father as he talks to the older brother (Luke 15:25-32, NIV). To the Pharisees, giving access to God to the uneducated and uninformed was compromising righteousness in favor of popularity. To them, Jesus is uncompromising: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:1-2, NIV).
FORGIVE REPEAT OFFENDERS
Opening the doors of the kingdom to everyone who repents means shedding our religious prejudices and seeing people from God’s perspective. When we become religiously righteous in our own eyes, we are in danger of holding others to impossible standards. So, to the disciples, Jesus says: “watch yourselves” (Luke 17:3).
God’s love is a truly amazing thing! In response to His love He expects His children to love others. Of all of the ways we can demonstrate His love to others there is, perhaps, no stronger testimony to His power than the way that we use our money for others: for the kingdom.
GOD LOVES THE LOST
Seeing the ‘sinners and tax collectors’ gathering around Jesus, the religious rulers believed that Jesus had to compromise The Law. “Righteous people do not hang out with those people,” they may have exclaimed (Luke 15:1-2).
It is at this point that Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) and the lost son (Luke 15:11-24) to show that attending to the lost and keeping the Law are in perfect harmony. Jesus, then, challenges the Pharisees to look at their own hearts as He tells them the story of the older brother. In the story, his father ‘pleaded’ with him to join the celebration (Luke 15:25-32).
THE USE OF MONEY
At the beginning of Luke 16 Jesus tells the parable of the shrewd manager who uses his former employer’s money to secure his own future. Jesus seems to be encouraging us to use the money that God gives us to make friends to encourage them to secure their eternal future as well as our own (Luke 16:1-9).
Managing God’s wealth well means that we will be entrusted with more responsibility. Conversely, there are negative consequences when we use His wealth selfishly for ourselves (Luke 16:10-12). To try to straddle the fence between worshiping God or money is futile because it is an either/or proposition (Luke 16:13).
FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY
At this point the religious rulers begin to ‘sneer’ at Jesus, prompting his convicting accusation: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15).
Their disdain for Jesus’ love for the lost is now coupled with their love of money. They, themselves, are the ones compromising the Law when they use the wealth that God had given them for their own selfish purposes. Jesus says to them:
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.”
If Jesus was quoting the religious rulers then He could be mocking them as if to say, ‘Everything was just fine until John the Baptist and Jesus showed up! Now everyone thinks they can enter the kingdom of God!” Or it could be that Jesus is simply observing that the Law and the Prophets have now been realized with the good news of the kingdom of God.
Either way, Jesus’ point is clear, love for the lost and our use of money in response to God’s love for us is consistent with the Law and the Prophets. In fact, Jesus affirms, ” It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:17).
To illustrate this point, Jesus boldly wades right into the hotly debated controversy of marriage and divorce. This was an issue with which the religious elite were embroiled in first-century Israel (see Matthew 19:1-9). “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). It is as if to say, “There is no controversy here except where you religious rulers have chosen to compromise The Law to your own advantage.”
For those who practice this kind of mental gymnastics, Jesus warns them of their fate in the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
The final words of Moses in the story point to a prophetic truth that will be realized in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ Himself: ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’ (Luke 16:31, NIV).
This observation was as true then as it is now, today. Believe in the Law and the Prophets! Believe in the one who has risen from the dead! Listen to the story, know Christ, and use the money God has given you for His purposes!