Invited

So, you have been invited to an awards ceremony. You are pretty convinced that you have been invited because of something you have done; the book you authored; the song you wrote; the medical discovery you made. You are surrounded by your peers. People who have also accomplished great things. They make a speech that you really don’t hear as you bask in your glory; as you envision that moment you accept the award; as you go over your acceptance speech. The moment comes near. They announce that this year’s winner of the coveted “whatever” award is . . . And you stand before the name is announced. You beam with pride. But something is horribly wrong. The name they uttered was, alas, not yours. So, there you are standing and filled with embarrassment. Well, that could have gone better.

              Luke 14:7-11 is not a parable even though Luke calls it a parable. It is more than a pithy saying. Many a Greek writer mentions the problem with seeking honor. Theophrastus speaks of people who thrust themselves into places of honor as “seekers of petty distinction.” Jesus is doing something else here. The word parable tips us off that he is speaking about kingdom stuff. The scene is a meal to which several had been invited. Jesus notices the way the invited guests sought out places of honor. There may be an underlying message about being content that you had been invited. You know instead of acting as if having been invited is nothing unless you can sit in a place of importance. The word invited is used six times in Jesus’ message. There is an emphasis here. You had been invited. I mean, wow! You have been invited. Oh, and the one who invited has the right to decide who sits where.

              So, when you are invited to a wedding banquet do not recline at the first place; kicking back with the smug assurance that this is where you belong. The one who invited you may have someone else in mind to sit there. And how embarrassing would that be? Most people have taken their seats. Everyone sees the host approach and ask you to sit elsewhere. The only seats left are the last or least important seats. And then comes the walk of shame as you rise and go to find a seat.

              Instead of that, when you come to the banquet recline yourself at the last place. There may be a hint of being content to just be at the feast. You don’t need anything else here. You are there. You! So, happily plump yourself down with other just happy to be there people. And then when the inviter sees you, he will call you “friend” and tell you to move up to a superior seat. Imagine all of your fellow diners as they see you rise up and move up. There may be a different kind of embarrassment here. A good embarrassment; an “awe shucks” embarrassment. Now, you are not only invited, you have also received glory. Not because you expected or demanded or positioned yourself to receive it, but because you positioned yourself not to receive it. I know. Paradox. But there you go. That is the kingdom of God.

              Then we have another wandering word from Jesus. But it is not just from Jesus. It breathes throughout the Bible. The one who lifts himself up will be lowered. The one who lowers himself will be lifted. This message is found in Proverbs 25:6-7, which Jesus most likely alludes to. You can also find it in 2 Samuel 22:28. It is found in the beatitudes with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” This is more than a wise statement about social graces. This is kingdom essence. If you are in the kingdom, you know. You are just excited to be there. God didn’t invite you because it would give his kingdom a certain panache that would be otherwise lacking.

              You have been invited! And this is no ordinary invitation even though some treat it as such. This is an invitation from the king of kings; the creator of all things. He wants you in his kingdom. He has paid the price for your admission. Don’t saunter in and plop down in the important places. Don’t lift yourself up to great heights bragging about how you are best chums with God. Because if you do, you will be missing the glory of the kingdom. Slink in as if you are not sure the king meant you. Sit down inconspicuously in an out of the way corner somewhere. Be amazed you are there at all. And then when the king comes up to you and says, “My friend, I wish you to sit up at my table,” be overwhelmed with an embarrassment that still cannot believe he means you; thinking that you are the last person who should be sitting at the king’s table. But then you notice that everyone in the kingdom is sitting at the king’s table. And it hits you; everyone at the table had made themselves low. No smug assurance here. Only shocked joy. Peace.

Lurking Watch

I have this crazy idea that God gave us rules to help us not to harm us; to encourage growth not to stifle it. And when we focus so much on the rules that we miss what the rule is about, well, that is when the stifling harm happens. It is the church that thinks its prayers have to be just so and therefore they have a list of people who are not asked to lead prayer. I heard a speaker tell a story about his hometown church. It was a small rural church. One of the members was a mentally challenged young man. We’ll name him Rob. Rob loved church and wanted to participate. The church family loved Rob and they encouraged him to lead the closing prayers. These prayers were often a discussion of where Rob wanted to go eat and a menu of what he wanted to eat that day. Well, is that what the closing prayer is supposed to be about? Is this proper prayer etiquette? It is if corporate prayer is intended to be family approaching their God to commune with him. So, I think this small body of believers got it right.

              Luke 14:1-6 is yet another sabbath encounter. This time it takes place in the home of a certain leader among the Pharisees. Important people gathered for the sabbath meal. And at this particular meal the Pharisees in attendance are watching Jesus closely. The word used here has the idea of watching lurkingly; of watching in order to catch someone at something. Okay, this may imply that they had set a trap or that they were on heightened alert to catch Jesus at something, anything. So, this certain man that was there. We don’t know if he was an invited guest or if he wandered in to be healed by Jesus. He may have been invited as a trap for Jesus or it may have been a serendipitous moment for the Pharisees. The important thing is that this certain man had dropsy, what we call edema. This is a swelling of water in the tissue; usually in the extremities such as the legs or arms. It is not a disease but a symptom. The disease behind this malady can be heart, kidney, or liver failure. So, it can be quite serious and life threatening. The swelling itself can be painful and make it impossible to walk. This certain man may have been close to death and in a lot of pain.

              Jesus responds to the lawyers and Pharisees. These experts in the law of Moses are often grouped with the Pharisees. But what is Jesus responding to? It may be that he is responding to their lurking hearts. His response is a question, “Is it lawful or permitted to heal on the sabbath?” It seems like a straightforward question. Why don’t they just say “no”? Instead they respond with silence. The word Jesus used for healing is always used of miracles and it carries with it the idea of caring for, serving. There are some rabbinical sources that suggest that helping a person on the sabbath is permissible if it is a life and death situation. We don’t know if this certain man had a life-threatening condition. It seems likely that they became silent because Jesus question put them on the spot. Can you care for people on the sabbath? Whether this man was an invited trap or a happy coincidence, they clearly did not care about him or his pain. And even if they did, they could not heal the man anyway. But Jesus could.

              And he did. He took the man and healed him. And Luke used a different word for healing here. This word is more medical. It can refer to medicine. This may simply be rhetoric; using words of similar meaning to add variety to the text. But what if the word used here is more medical to emphasize Jesus’ question? He medically healed him, but it is about caring about this certain man. Jesus sends the man away. And again, the word used here is interesting. It is the same word used in 13:16 when Jesus talks about the woman who was all doubled over being released from her bondage. Jesus has the authority to release. He then wraps the whole thing up by posing another question: “which one of you leaves a donkey or an ox stuck in a pit on the sabbath?” The manuscript is divided between “son” and “donkey” in verse 5. Donkey makes more sense because Jesus’ point is that they care more about their animals than people. The animals did not represent pets. They represented livelihood. They were necessary tools.

              They missed the intent of the sabbath law. Their hearts became lurking because they cared more about the rules than the people the rules were intended to bless. It is the man who attends a conference to gather bullets to shoot at other people or groups. Watching not to learn; not to grow. But watching with a lurking heart hoping to discover faults. It is my prayer that you will be blessed by God’s rules. That your heart will be released from lurking. Jesus is the bondage breaker! Be set free. Grace and peace.

The Want in Your Path

For some, their journey feels as if it has been thrust upon them; an unwanted traipse through an unwanted life. And it can become convenient to blame our journey on the happenstance of fate. But I think it more likely that our journey is shaped by our wants. Those wants may be forged in circumstances beyond our control. So, what is it that you want? If we can answer that we may be able to give our journey more direction, instead of letting the journey dictate our course. Does that even make sense? Even if others attempt to derail our journey. And they will. So, will your journey be shaped by the wants of others? Or will you hang onto your will and journey on?

              Luke 13:31-35 is all about want and going. Jesus is most likely still in Galilee as he journeys toward Jerusalem. A Pharisee came near to him and seems to warn him saying, “Go! Leave! Herod wants to kill you.” You should journey away from here because of the want of Herod. We don’t know what the Pharisee wants here. There have been many guesses. In the gospel of Luke, the Pharisees are often opponents of Jesus. Does the Pharisee warn Jesus because he wants Jesus to journey elsewhere? Does he want to demonstrate that Jesus is motivated by fear? Does he genuinely want to warn Jesus? We don’t know for sure. The Pharisee’s want is not the concern in the text. What is at issue is whether or not Jesus’ journey will be derailed by Herod’s want.

              Jesus tells the Pharisee to journey to Herod and deliver a message. Does he truly intend the Pharisee to deliver the message or is this rhetoric? Again, I’m not sure we can know for sure. What we can know is that Jesus refers to Herod as a “fox.” Most assume that the reference is to being sly and crafty. But in Nehemiah 4:3 a fox is used to represent something that is small and insignificant. Maybe Jesus is making a statement about Herod’s insignificance. No matter how important he thinks he is; no matter how much he thinks his wants should shape everyone else’s journey, he is insignificant. This would fit the context because the message is that Jesus will continue with his mission of dealing with evil today, tomorrow and the third day. This phrase is an idiom that means one event will follow the other in a timely and orderly fashion. Jesus knows what he wants. He desires to do the will of the father and he will not detour from that path.

              Herod’s murderous intent is not what sets him on a course to Jerusalem. Even though it may appear that he is fleeing Galilee to Jerusalem to save his life, the reality is that he is journeying to Jerusalem in a timely and orderly fashion to die in Jerusalem. That a prophet cannot die outside of Jerusalem is ironic. There is no such statement in the Bible and plenty of prophets have been slain outside of the great city. But the Israelites believed that nothing important could take place outside of Jerusalem, the center of Judaism. Instead of being the great center of religion or obedience it is the city of killing the prophets of God, those who were sent to her with a message from God.

              Jesus’ path is shaped by his want to gather the children of Jerusalem (most likely referring to all of Israel) like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. The image of wings protecting young was proverbial and often used of God protecting his people (Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalms 17:8; 36:7; Ruth 2:12). But the children of Jerusalem did not want to be protected. This shaped their journey and as a result the prophesy of Jeremiah 22:1-8 is fulfilled and the house, most likely referring to the city, is abandoned. In Jeremiah the people are warned that if they obey God, they would prosper, but if not, they would be desolate. Their abandoned path because of their want to not be gathered or protected by Jesus. The city is abandoned and they will not see Jesus until the time comes when they will say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is from Psalm 118:26 and it is used to refer to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus is coming. He is journeying in the name of the Lord and they will see it eventually.

              Jesus’ path was not dictated by the wants of Herod. His path was dictated by his desire to do the will of God. He came in the name of Yahweh, to do the will of God. Nothing could change his path. So, how about you? What do you want? If you want to please God, your journey will be set. Others may try to impose their wants into your journey. But today and the next day and the third day, you will be traveling on in the name of Yahweh. The Herod’s of this life are not as powerful as they think. Journey on.

No Sychophants

If you can be guilty by association, can you be innocent by association? Can a sycophant be swept along to glory? Let’s approach this from a different angle. The third commandment of the renowned Ten Commandments is “You shall not take the name of the Lord you God in vain.” The word “take” means “lift, carry, bear.” What God is telling his people not to do was to take up his name and bear it as if it were worthless. Don’t walk around saying you belong to God while you involve yourself in all manner of un-Godlike behaviors. You cannot sneak into God’s presence through sycophantic fawning over his name. Being an image bearer of God means honoring the name.

              I think Jesus is saying much the same thing in Luke 13:22-30. As Jesus was passing through city and village teaching on his way to Jerusalem a person asked him, “Lord are a few to be saved?” There are several Jewish apocalyptic sources that claim that only a few will make it to the great banquet. Only the most pious Jews have a chance. This person on the way may be wanting Jesus’ theological discourse on the end of times. In typical Jesus fashion he answers the question with a parable. And this is different enough from Matthew 7:13-14 to at least entertain the possibility that it is a separate statement given at a different time. Really, the only similarity between the two accounts is the word narrow and the concept of many not entering in.

              In our passage, Jesus begins with the concept of struggling to enter through the narrow door. The word “struggle” is often used of athletic contests. There is a human response to God’s grace. Grace does not mean an easy chair approach to heaven. We are commanded to struggle to enter. And Jesus confirms the Jewish concept of only a few entering. Many will seek but will find themselves unable to enter. And then you have what ought to be a terrifying moment when the head of the house rises up and shuts the door. And no amount of knocking and pleading will entice him to open that door. Instead the knockers hear him proclaim “I do not know where you are from.” Notice that Jesus switched to second person: “You begin to stand outside and knock; you begin to say.” Jesus draws us into the story. Picture yourself outside of the very house you long to enter; you are desperate to enter; knocking and pleading. “But we ate and drank in your presence. We heard you teach. Don’t you remember?”

              And again the head of the house will say, “I do not know where you are from.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “I do not know you.” No, it is “I don’t know where you are from.” Maybe the point is that in all of their hanging out with Jesus, they never changed their citizenship; their address. Claiming to have Jesus eat in your house is not the same as changing your address to kingdom of God. They wanted to bear the name follower without actually following. Then the head of the house will add a quote from Psalm 6:8: “Depart from me, all you evildoers.” The psalmist is saying that God has heard his prayer so they had better skedaddle. It is another way of saying that the door is shut. The opportunity has closed. And there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth – an idiom that describes intense pain or sorrow. They will see that the big three: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all in the house banqueting it up. And they have been thrown out. Hmm. They weren’t even allowed in. How can they be cast out? These are those who thought their association as descendant from these patriarchs assured their entrance.

              Then there is this gathering. Many assume that this gathering refers to the Gentiles. Maybe. But it may also refer to the great gathering of God’s people after the dispersion. And it seems to indicate a great multitude coming from every direction. Whether we are talking about Gentiles or the ingathering of Jews, the number that comes to recline at the table is small compared to the number who do not come. Verse 30 is a wandering saying; a saying Jesus utters at several different times in different settings. Some who are last will be first.

              It is not enough to say you are a Christian. It is not enough to claim dining status with him. Are you following? Has your association with Jesus changed your address? Fawning all over Jesus does not save you. Where are you from? If you are a citizen of the kingdom now, the door is open to you. Now, while you walk this earth, is the time to enter the kingdom. The door stands open. Struggle to enter in. Because there is a time coming when the door will be shut. No sycophants allowed here. Change your address then.

Kingdom of God

It is difficult not to interpret God’s word through our current circumstances. There is a difference between asking “What does God’s word say to our situation?” and “What does our situation tell us God’s word means?” The former is a turning to Scripture seeking to find answers for cultural happenings and the latter is a turning to culture to understand Scriptural instructions. Many, in Jesus day, interpreted the coming of the Messiah, the Kingdom, through the lens of their circumstance. Even though Persia allowed a return to Judah in 538 BC, they were still being ruled by a foreign and Godless nation. And even though the Greeks took over in 332 BC, nothing really changed. Not until the Maccabean revolt in 167 BC did they taste of freedom from an occupying power. For 104 years they rejoiced in their success. Did the Maccabees represent the Messiah? Was this the Kingdom of God breaking into their reality and breaking their shackles? Then in 63 BC the Romans came thundering into their reality and the questions dried up. They would obviously have to wait some more. When Jesus burst onto the scene, Rome had been ruling them for some 90 years. Is it any wonder that they longed for a Kingdom that would force the Romans out or better yet, into extinction, and then, well, just last forever?

              Jesus came proclaiming a different kind of kingdom. Luke 13:18-21 contains two very short parables that show us what Jesus believed the kingdom to be like. What is the kingdom of God like? Many in the audience would have answered “a sword,” or “an ax,” or “a host of Godly warriors.” I wonder if any shouted out their answers. But Jesus answers his own question and compares the kingdom to a mustard seed. The mustard seed was proverbial among the Jewish people. It was a small seed, possibly the smallest seed in Palestine at the time, and it grew into a fairly large shrub. The sinapis nigra (black mustard) plant had an average height of four feet, but could reach up to nine feet. It is technically a shrub, but Theophrastus was known to use the word “tree” for “shrub.” And Jesus wanted the word tree because of the Old Testament allusion he intended to make.

              So, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which a man took and threw into his garden. The word “threw” seems to emphasize a haphazard approach to planting. Jesus is most likely wanting to show that it is the seed that has power to grow. It is not the man and his careful cultivating, plowing, planting, weeding. It’s the seed; the kingdom of God that has power. You see, I need reminding of that occasionally. We can tend to think that successful kingdom growth is about our care; our approach; us. Don’t get me wrong, we should plant, or in this case throw, the seed. But it is the kingdom that contains growth power within itself. Some seem to think that Jesus is describing his ministry here and defending a slow or small beginning. It seems more likely that he is showing how the kingdom of God works; it is like a seed. It is not a sword, expertly wielded to defeat those dogs the Romans. It is a seed that grows on the inside of a person and becomes a tree; a tree in which the birds can seek shelter. The quote is from Ezekiel 17:23. In the Ezekiel passage Yahweh says that he will take a sprig, young and tender, and plant it on his mountain where it will become a mighty tree in which birds will take shelter. God’s kingdom growing in us becomes a source of shelter for others. Well, let that one sink in.

              The second parable illustrates the same point. This time, Jesus enters the realm of women. Luke brings out this balance more so than the other gospel writers. Not only was it a means of drawing in half of his audience, it was an equalization. In the kingdom of God, men and women are equal. I wonder if the women in the audience listened with delight when a woman became central to the parable. So, this woman takes some leaven and hides it in three pecks of flour. This is strange behavior. Leaven was usually kneaded in the dough. This encourages the fermentation process. But again, if the kingdom is leaven, growth power is in the leaven.

              The kingdom of God is bursting with growth power; like a seed nearly bursting with life ready to spring out. Our job is to throw; to hide; to get that life bursting essence into the hearts of people; men and women. God’s kingdom does not bully people into submission. It is planted or hid in the heart and there it germinates and grows. And if the soil is good, it will become a tree in which others can find rest and shelter. So, women and men, throw and hide. And trust the kingdom to burst forth with life. Grace and peace.

Doubled Over

Some people seem all doubled over with burden; bowed down with a horrible weight they can no longer carry; crippled by calamitous life. Some are shackled with feelings of inadequacy. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote a series of short stories entitled “Notes from the Underground.” It is all about people who feel invisible; people who mostly go through life unnoticed; people doubled over with the weight of their insignificance. Some people are so chained up you can almost see the heavy links dragging them down. Whether it is illness, sin, evil, or just plain life, chains bind. They bind and weigh down.

              Luke 13:10-17 is a healing that is unique to Luke. The setting and scenario, however, are very familiar. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on a sabbath. The synagogue was a gathering place; a kind of community center; the chief structure of most villages or city burrows. The sabbath was a holy day of rest and sacred contemplation of the Almighty. On this particular sabbath, in this particular synagogue, there was a woman who had a spirit of weakness. And this doesn’t seem to be about demon possession. In Luke, the chains of Satan that Jesus came to break include things like illness, poverty, oppression, blindness, and yes, demon possession. The fall brought all of these things into God’s creation. Originally, God’s creation was weakness free. No diseases; no debilitating deformity; no evil minions wreaking havoc. Jesus came to bring release. This woman was doubled over and was completely unable to straighten herself and she had been this way for eighteen years. Can you imagine being all doubled over for eighteen years? I cannot. This may be something like spondylitis ankylopoietica, which causes a fusion of the vertebrae. But we really don’t know. All we need to know here is that she has been unable to straighten herself for eighteen years.

              Jesus saw her and called her over. This is important. She did not seek Jesus out. He saw her; noticed her distress and responded with a “woman, you are freed from your weakness.” There may be something to ask ourselves here: When we see people in distress, do we respond? Jesus laid his hands on her and suddenly she was able to straighten up. No healing in stages here; no delayed reaction. And again, try to imagine all of sudden you can stand erect after eighteen years of walking around all hunched over. Did she say, “Oi! Eighteen years of being doubled over will give you such a crick in your back”? Uhm, probably not. What she did do was to glorify God. There was no question of where this power came from.

              The synagogue ruler was not impressed. As a matter of fact, he was rather put out with Jesus for healing on the sabbath. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t rebuke Jesus. He rebukes the crowd for seeking to be healed on the sabbath instead of any other day. Maybe he was afraid to rebuke Jesus. I mean the man had just healed a woman who had been bent over for eighteen years. Maybe he knew he could not outright deny what just happened. But, in the story, the woman did not seek to be healed on the sabbath. For all we know, she just showed up to worship God. Jesus saw and healed.

              And Jesus will have none of this. He mentions their willingness to unbind their oxen or donkeys on the sabbath so that they can be led to water. They could not directly give the animal water, but untying (certain knots could not be untied on the sabbath) their animals and walking them to get a drink was okey dokey. But this woman, this daughter of Abraham, who has been all tied up by Satan, you want to make her wait another day? You don’t even make your animals wait one day. And people are more important; more important than your animals and more important than your interpretation of the rules. The hostile to Jesus people were humiliated and the common people rejoiced. I think this is more than the fact that Jesus could do really cool things. This was about him making a statement about their importance.

              Jesus is not saying that it is wrong to untie their animals on the sabbath. He is pointing out an inconsistency. If I say it is ironic that some people care more about the fate of a tiger than an unborn baby, I am not saying that it is wrong to care about the tiger. I am merely pointing out the inconsistency; a creation inconsistency. People are more important; people are made in the image of God. And they should be treated as more important. It is wrong to treat animals with more respect and care than image of God bearing people. Oh, and rules, especially the rules of God, are meant to help people, not bind them. Jesus came to release. If we focus on the rules to the hurt and binding of souls, we are missing the point. Grace.

Get Fruity

Once, there were these three peach trees from Georgia. Why Georgia? All the good peach trees are from Georgia. One of these trees decided that it didn’t want to produce Georgia peaches. It wanted to produce Washington apples. But no matter how hard it tried, if it produced fruit at all, well, it was peaches. So, it gave up and produced nothing; happily sucking up nutrients from the soil for no good reason. Another tree decided that it didn’t want to produce fruit at all. It felt that it should have a different purpose than producing fruit. It could be a swing; a jungle gym; a home for squirrels; anything other than producing fruit. It also gave up on the fruit thing. The third tree was happy to produce juicy Georgian peaches. It had a purpose and it lived it. You are not a tree. Sorry to disappoint. But like a fruit tree, you also have a purpose. You were also intended to produce fruit. It is not your job to decide what kind of fruit; it is not your purpose to do something else than yield fruit. It is your job to bear fruit. And only when you are within the parameters of fruit producing will you be happy.

              Luke 13:6-9 is a parable about a fig tree. The setting scene is Jesus’ discussion on the need to repent. So, repentance may be the specific fruit he is referencing here. Parable hoe. There was this man who had a fig tree in a vineyard. This may seem odd to us and that may send us scampering for a hidden message. But there are several examples of fruit trees being planted in a vineyard. Some suggest that this is so that the tree can benefit from the fertile vineyard soil. Some have suggested that the grapes, and therefore the wine, will take on a subtle flavor from the fruit tree. I don’t know. I am not a dendrologist. It was a common enough scenario that I don’t think we need to search for a hidden meaning. The main part of the parable is that this fig tree did not produce fruit. No figs for you.

              Many sources will claim at this point that the fig tree is used to represent Israel. Well, in Isaiah 5 and other places the vineyard represents Israel. In Hosea 9:10 God said that he saw the Israelite forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree. In Hosea, the point is most likely about potential. Those crazy forefathers were brimming with potential. But instead, they devoted themselves to shame. I think that to limit the parable to unrepentant Israel, well, limits the parable. One of the basic meanings is that fig trees have a purpose. They are intended to produce figs.

              The owner of the vineyard tells the vineyard worker that he has been searching for fruit for three years. It is assumed that he didn’t begin to seek for fruit until the tree was expected to produce. The owner himself came seeking for fruit. This is both comforting and terrifying. You see, we are intended to bear fruit. In the context that at least includes repentance. It is the owner, God himself, who checks for fruit. And if he cannot pluck a fig from our branches, he is going to suggest an ax solution. John the Baptist gave the same warning in Luke 3:9. Not only is this tree not fulfilling its purpose, it is also depleting the land. And maybe that is why this fig tree is planted in the vineyard. The whole vineyard may be adversely affected by its lack of fruit. It is robbing the soil of nutrients without a single result. The owner will not tolerate this. So, what is the big deal if we don’t produce fruit? Our stagnation may just ruin the soil for others in the vineyard. It is never just about us.

              The vineyard worker argues compassion; a second chance. Give it one more year. The worker will take special care of the tree; digging around it and working in some fertilizer. If that ol’ fig tree begins to produce fruit, it is a win win situation for everyone. The owner has the benefit of the fruit and the tree survives. But if it doesn’t yield itself some fruit, the ax will come out and the tree will be cut down. Fruit trees have a purpose. Everything about the tree is intended to work that purpose. You and I may not be trees, but we also have a purpose. So, repent and produce the fruit that comes with repentance. It is not enough to say, “Sorry about that.” Produce fruit.

              There is this refrain in the Old Testament (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10): “So Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree.” This seems to be about, not only safety, but the purpose of God being fulfilled. When we bear fruit as we are intended to do, we can rest in safety; in the shade of a nice tree. Bearing fruit results in safety and rest. Not bearing fruit results in depleting resources not only for ourselves, but for others as well. Get fruity then. Grace and peace.

Question of Debt

Did they get what they deserved? In that question there are a few assumptions: they as apposed to us or me; and they deserve to be punished or consequenced – but me? Well, of course not. What are you thinking? And now we have another assumption that existed in Jesus’ day and breathes in our day as well. If someone experiences hardship of any kind, it must be that God is punishing them. And if God is punishing them, then they obviously are getting what they deserve. One of the sources I looked at claims that Jesus is endorsing this long standing theological outlook. This source refers to the book of Job as evidence of the existence of the theology. Well yeah, the Jewish people held onto the view, but Job is all about how wrong that view of God is. So, I could be wrong, but I don’t believe Jesus is endorsing the theology that if someone is experiencing suffering they are being punished by God.

              Luke 13:1-5 is a setting scene for the parable in verses 6-9. At the same time as the previous discourse, there were some present who told Jesus about an incident where Pilate killed some Galileans. We have no record of this event. We do know that Pilate was ruthless and so the idea of him killing a group of Galileans is not a stretch. That he mixed their blood with their sacrifice most likely means that he killed them in the temple during one of the pilgrimage feasts. They were most likely guilty of some form of insurrection. The people making this report are probably wanting Jesus to make some kind of comment on those sinful Galileans. Obviously, if they had been blessed by God, if their attempted rebellion had been blessed, they would not have been killed by that scoundrel Pilate.

              But does their execution mean that they were worse sinners than all the rest of Galilee? That is the wrong question. The right question is: do you need to repent? And in the reality of your need to repent, does it make sense to ask if another person or group needs to repent more than you? No. You need to repent. We are still guilty of making assumptions. We assume that we are decent people. Well, at least more decent than some people. And maybe you are not guilty of murder, or theft, or rebellion. But you are guilty. You are in need of repentance. And if you do not repent; if you get all caught up in thinking that the suffering of others is because they are more guilty than you – you will never escape your own guiltiness.

              And just in case they don’t get the point, Jesus brings up an incident of his own. What about the eighteen people who were killed when a tower near the pool of Siloam fell? We don’t know anything about this event or even this tower. That’s okay. Jesus’ listeners knew all about it. Why didn’t the people use this example? It seems likely they wanted to call attention to the guilt of those inferior Galileans. There was a Jerusalem snobbery. So, Jesus had an example ready made to confront their snobbery. Was the eighteen Jerusalemites crushed by a toppled tower worse sinners than the rest of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem? The word Jesus uses here, translated “culprits” in the NASB, means debtors. It is most likely an Aramaic idiom for those who, because of their sin, are in debt to God. And doesn’t that describe each and every one of us?

              I fail to see how this could be interpreted as Jesus bolstering their view of bad things happening because of sin. I know. Sin ruins lives. Absolutely. But does my dad have dementia because he is a sinner? And if so, why do so many others sinners not have dementia? Those who think that Jesus is reinforcing this thought, think the “perishing” referred to here is a this worldly punishment. So, under this view Jesus is warning his listeners to repent or they may just have a tower topple on top of them. Uhm, I don’t think so. It seems the opposite to me. He is warning against a Pharisaical belief that the poor; the downtrodden; the oppressed; the hurting; the dead and dying; are merely receiving what they deserve because, dang it all, they are in debt to God.               What is this exchange calling us to? It is too easy to think about how guilty those people are. Those sinners; those reprobates. And as we are pointing fingers at them, we can conveniently overlook our indebtedness; our sinfulness. I am a sinner. God forgive me, I am in debt. I am the one who needs to repent, to feel the weight of my sin, to be overwhelmed by sorrow and regret, to throw myself at the mercy of my king. I deserve to die. Me. And until I acknowledge this truth, I will never repent. I will pat myself on the back and say, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as those Galileans who Pilate killed.” Repent my friends.

Accused

Maybe our problem is that we don’t understand our debt. I mean if someone takes us to court to give them money we don’t owe them, we are going to resist that with vigor. The one time I went to court to contest a ticket I won. After a motorcycle accident, I was given a “failure to control speed” ticket. The police officer told me that it was standard ticket given to everyone who was in a single vehicle accident. Because, you know, you can’t blame anyone else, so it must be a speeding issue. Well, I had not been speeding thank you very much. I crashed because where two streets merged there was a median that I didn’t see to my right. It was night and I was trying to make sure I didn’t collide with cars. Something that is kind of important when driving a motorcycle. So, going the speed limit, I crashed and developed a healthy dose of road rash. I won because I think the judge saw that I could have sued the city over the lack of adequate light. I fought the ticket because I didn’t think I owed anything; that I deserved a “failure to control speed” ticket. I was given two tickets that night. The other one I did not contest. It was a “driving without insurance” ticket. I deserved that one. But I wonder if people fight against God because they don’t think they have a debt; that they don’t owe God anything.

              Luke 12:57-59 is a short passage with a debated meaning. Some suggest that this is merely good advice thrown into the middle of a discussion on reading the signs. Most sources will dismiss this theory. It doesn’t hold water. Even if some want to say that Jesus uttered these words in a different setting, Luke threw them in here for a reason. So, either Jesus uttered these words within a context (which I believe to be the case), or Luke put them here. Either way, the context is key. Verse 57 flows from verse 56. Jesus had told them that they know how to test the appearance of the earth and the sky but not the time. Now, he asked why they don’t even from themselves judge what is right. Go ahead and test the appearance. But make judgments concerning what is right. There are more important things than figuring out if you are going to need an umbrella. There is justice; there is right and wrong; there is upright. The implication is that God has given us the ability to make decisions about what is right. Personally, I think that is only true when we are in relationship with him. Otherwise, we tend to make a mess of things. Our present crisis bears this out.

              Then Jesus gives us a scenario, maybe even a parable. While you are being led along you’re your accuser, give energy to liberate from him. So, several things here: the word translated “while you are going” in the NASB has a basic meaning of to be led along and it can be a legal technical term for being led off to the authorities. I think this is the intent here. The words “make an effort” (NASB) is literally, “give energy,” and it is a colloquialism for “make every effort,” “give it your all.” “Settle” originally had the meaning “alter by removal,” and it has a common meaning of “liberate.” The preposition “with” is literally “from.” While you are on the road, there is still time. Do every thing you can to liberate yourself. If not you will be dragged before a judge and things will quickly be determined. You will be chucked in prison and stay there until the last lepton, the smallest coin in use in the day, is paid back. And debtor’s prison was not a great place to be able to pay back a debt. So, there is this reality that is discovered at the end: you owe; there is a debt. Your accuser is not just puffing steam.

              And now for the big question: What is going on here? One source says that the point that Jesus is making is that God, the judge, is concerned about how we treat others. Take care of your debts. If you don’t you may face bigger consequences than an earthly judge. Okay, that is true, but is that what Jesus is saying here? In the context, it would make more sense to see this as a parable. The time that they should have tested, is that Jesus is the Christ; the one who brings, not only salvation, but judgment. It is a time of being led to the officials. We are living on the road. Now is the time to liberate; to acknowledge that, we do, indeed owe God everything. And Jesus is the only way we can pay that debt. After facing the judge, our options will be up.

              You have been issued a ticket for “failure to obey God.” You deserve this ticket. You owe payment. Jesus came to pay the price. And while you are on this path, you have an opportunity to settle your account; to put your trust in Jesus. Satan is the accuser. He is not wrong. He is not merely blowing smoke. You are a sinner. Allow Jesus to liberate you while you are on the path. Please don’t wait.

Test

There are experts at reading signs: economic signs; cultural signs; pandemic signs. They study, immersing themselves in learning to recognize and interpret. They gather data and make predictions. They warn of gathering storm clouds or they calm fears with informed predictions of a rebounding economy. Sometimes these sign readers are fear mongers. Sometimes they are selling a product. Sometimes they read signs to make a boat load of money. Sometimes they just want to sound as if they know what they are talking about. And sometimes these sign readers are very good at reading signs that speak of cultural shifts and changes or economic trends or spreading germs, but are woefully lacking the skill to read more important signs; signs that have eternal significance. It is Ralph Nickleby in Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby (or many other a Dickens character) who is very skilled at reading and taking advantage of the signs of economic development, but who is seriously lacking in seeing family signs. Instead of helping and developing a relationship with his brother’s family he ostracizes them. Not to mention the whole keeping his marriage and birth of a son secret so as to make sure he didn’t lose the wife’s inheritance. His son dies without him even knowing that he was still alive. Ralph was monetarily rich, but poor in what really mattered. He tested the wrong things.

              Luke 12:54-56 is about testing. Jesus gives two signs that were easily recognizable in his day. If they saw a cloud rising up from the west, they could be relatively sure that rain was on its way. After all, that cloud is coming from the Mediterranean Sea, having gathered up moisture. Get your umbrella out boys and girls. It’s going to rain. And generally speaking, that is exactly what came about. Jesus emphasizes how easy this sign is to recognize by saying, “Immediately, you say . . .” You don’t have to take time to study it. You see a cloud. You see where it is coming from. And you know what comes next. Easy.

              And when a south wind is blowing, that is also an easy sign. That wind is coming from the desert and it carries scorching heat with it. You feel the wind. You analyze that it is coming from the south. And you know. It is going to be a scorcher boys and girls. And generally speaking, that is exactly what happened. Any child can test these signs.

              Then Jesus gets all rude on them and calls them hypocrites. The word hypocrite means actor. In the New Testament it can have the idea of contradictory. In this case the hypocrite is a person whose action contradict sense or reality or what is important. It seems likely that this is how Jesus meant it in our passage. It is not that the audience is duplicitous or putting on an act. That is not the form of hypocrisy being dealt with here. It is that their actions are a contradiction to reality. They know how to test the appearance of the earth and sky and adjust their actions accordingly. And Jesus’ rebuke is not that they are testing these things. There is nothing wrong in grabbing an umbrella when you see a cloud advancing from the Mediterranean Sea. There is nothing wrong in bracing yourself for a scorcher when there is a south wind blowing. The problem was that there were clear and obvious signs that were more important. They didn’t test these signs; they didn’t examine and approve them. Jesus’ whole life was a walking breathing sign of this time. The word time can refer to significant time; a decisive moment; an opportune time. The time that swirled around them was full of significance. It was a decisive moment. It was the merging of the kingdom of God and this world. Having grown up with Moses and the prophets, the Israelites should have read the signs just as easily as any child could feel a south wind and run to the Jordan River to cool off. The hypocrisy was a contradictory focus on the wrong things.

              It is the textual critic who so easily sees variant manuscript evidence but misses the Messiah. It is the scientist who can map genomes but misses the Creator. It is the average Joe who dusts off his resume because he has tested the underlying current in the company he works for, but doesn’t test the power of prayer, seeking the surging current of the Holy Spirit. The problem was not that Jesus’ life didn’t add up to the Old Testament prophesies. The problem was a contradiction of focus; a refusal to see the clear and easy signs all around them; a missing of a decisive moment. Jesus is the Messiah! He is the Savior! Right now is the decisive moment. Are you willing to learn how to test the signs that truly matter? My life makes more sense with Jesus. Tested and approved. Taste and see that God is good my friends.