“so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:8-10).
This is the purpose of the church, all else is a distraction. Anything else is diversion, entertainment, amusement, or about power, status, control, and always about sarx, flesh.
The Beelzebul episode is prelude to the parable rationale (Mark 4:10–12)
The Beelzebul episode (3:22–29) is the narrative transition and the basis for the pending Sower parable (Mark 4:1ff.), and as well, offers a reason for what some consider a “problematic use of Isaiah 6” in Jesus’ parable rationale (4:12). The meaning for Isa 6:9–10 in the parable rationale is “virtually identical to the original meaning in Isaiah.” Israel’s current leadership, who have hard hearts (3:5), have rejected God’s word and the inauguration of the Kingdom (i.e., the promised new Exodus)—to their own ruin and destruction (cf. Mark 4:11–12; cf. 7:6; 10:5; 12:10–12; 13:24–32; 14:62). The Jewish leadership is in jeopardy of remaining in exile, ultimately away from God’s Kingdom, therefore they receive parables of judgment.
As an explanation of the conflict Jesus has had with Jewish leadership, the parable of the Sower draws from the Mark 3 sandwich that depicts their rejection of the Kingdom that has come near (1:15) with the appearance of Messiah Jesus (1:1) and of their ultimate ruin (as outsiders). The warning against blaspheming the Holy Spirit has already been shown (above) to be analogous to the conditions and threat contained in Jesus’ parable rationale (4:10–12) in that the promise-threat of the Isaiah 6 idolatry-taunt is directed at those who are outside (i.e., their continued condition of exile) and, thus, cannot be forgiven (as it was for the leadership in Isaiah’s time). In a very real sense, the Beelzebul episode, with the full Mark 3 sandwich, is a prelude to judgment for those rejecting the authority of Jesus, the Messiah-King (1:1) and rebelling against the implications of the inaugurated Kingdom (1:15)—the new Exodus (cf. Isa 63:9–11)—which is the word (i.e., his teaching and deeds) sown by the Sower.
Although the whole nation falls under judgment, in Isaiah 1–5 it is specifically the leaders whom God holds accountable for provoking rebellion (Isa 1:10, 23), despising the word of the Holy One (Isa 5:24; cf. 1:4), and abandoning social responsibilities toward the poor (Isa 1:17, 23; 3:14–15). This is analogous to the incessant confrontations Jesus had with the Jerusalem temple-leadership throughout Mark’s narrative. Following on the heels of the Beelzubul confrontation (Mark 3:22ff), the judgment reflected in the parable and implied by the Isaiah 6 referent is appropriate for Israel’s unprepared leadership. As with the leaders addressed by Isaiah, there will be no forgiveness for the temple-leadership who reject Jesus and his Kingdom-word (do not forgive them, Isa 2:9; cf. Mark 3:29; 4:12). The allusion to the leadership’s culpability in the sad state of affairs in Isaiah’s day is strengthened in that Jerusalem had stumbled and rebelled against God’s presence (Isa 3:8) and had called evil good, and good evil, substituting darkness for light and light for darkness (5:20)—analogous to the Beelzebul accusations (Mark 3:22). An OT hermeneutic is at play in the Mark 3 sandwich, indicating the continued judgment of exile (being outside the kingdom) for the rebellious leaders who shame rather than honor Jesus, God’s Messiah-King.
Stray thoughts during church this morning:
I need to be better than my enemies. I need to be better than those who annoy me.
If I focus on the bad, the bothersome, and the annoying, that is what I’ll mirror, so I would not be better than what’s around me.
If we dance to our DNA, if that’s it and the naturalist is right, we have no basis for moral judgment on what happens around us; no basis for a moral judgment on any of the DNA dances—we don’t get to say whether we like the dancing or not.
Or, if we claim some moral basis on the DNA dances, then we are indeed demonstrating, admitting that we need more than science and life is grander than the naturalist’s claim.
If we are just the product of our hard-wiring and DNA, then the thoughts we have are neither right nor wrong, they just are. If we want our thoughts on right and wrong to prevail over another DNA dances, then we are demonstrating that the naturalistic worldview is not enough to explain everything about life in the known universe.
Of course in the end, it is all about Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father, but until then each mini-end, all the penultimates of life, it’s all about what the Bible says. What does the Bible say?
And if I forget everything else, remember the first thought above.
It seems there has always been good cause to repost a Christmas essay I wrote a number of years ago. In light of the Newtown, CT, Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy on Friday, there is cause to repost . . .
We underestimate our unbelieving neighbors and friends. We dismiss the possibility that, in their own way, they might actually be seriously seeking answers—ultimate answers about life, faith, and death. Often, it is our particular version of Christianity that is rejected or held in suspicion.
Christian sociologist Os Guinness writes that to the believer Christianity “was once life’s central mystery, its worship life’s most awesome experience, its faith life’s broadest canopy of meaning...” But, today, he laments, no matter how passionate or committed an individual believer may be, Christianity often amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare time hobby.
This modern version of Christianity is significant when we consider how non-believers view Christianity. For serious seekers, such spare-time faith is not a solution to their deepest needs. Christianity must be more than a cozy warm blanket, something more ultimate to raise one up above one’s needs.
Amid the glad tidings often associated with the Christmas story is an oft-missed dose of “reality” etched into biblical scene. Along with shouts of exultation from shepherds, homage from wise men, angels praising God, there is another voice:
“a voice heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children…refusing to be consoled, because [her children] were no more” (Matt 2:18).
These are strange words coming in the midst of this joyous occasion. Yet, they are a reminder that lament and despair grip the human experience.
The first time we meet Rachel is that delightful moment when she thought she would be marrying the love of her life, the OT patriarch Jacob. But the story turns quickly to despair: Her father tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, her older sister, first. Then to make matters worse, Leah has eight sons as Rachel remained childless and we hear her weigh the depths of her barrenness. God eventually takes Rachel’s reproach away by giving her a son, Joseph, Israel’s future deliverer. But, while giving birth to her second son she hears news that Joseph, her first-born, had been murdered. Then we learn that “Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty” and reflecting on her anguish, she names her new son “trouble” (Benjamin) and dies and is buried by the roadside on the way to Bethlehem. The roots, as well as the original Christmas story, is surrounded by the swing between gladness and suffering, between hope and despair. The realities of life.
The original Christmas narrative—the one that is inspired and finds a place in Scriptures—forces the reader back to the Rachel story, compelling us to include lament in the Christmas story. Certainly the Gospel writer wants us to know that God has sent his Son to be the deliverer of all mankind, the ultimate Joseph. Yet, Rachel and her cry seep into the first Christmas story. We need to know that despite joyous strains elsewhere, some refuse to be comforted except by God’s own intervention.
The Gospel story is pictured in Rachel’s cry, that is, of God’s Son ending up on a cross, rejected, and dying the cruelest of deaths. The reality of life, its pain and often unfairness, demand that one must turn to the God of Golgotha, who alone can provide the relief, the comfort, not simply mere sentimentalism or a “spare-time” religious experiences. No other hope other than God’s work in Christ can penetrate our deepest hurts or pierce our loneliest moments, or lift us above our needs. Amid the tinsel and cheerfully wrapped presents, let us remember Christ’s birth wasn’t to increase retail, but to bring good news that would meet the deepest needs of the human experience. Our unbelieving, skeptical friends and neighbors deserve no less. And in this, they might find the real Christianity, and the hope they long for.
“Moving step by step, in the majestic march of Progress, we have first vulgarised Christmas and then denounced it as vulgar. Christmas has become too commercial; so many of these thinkers would destroy the Christmas that has been spoiled and preserve the commercialism that has spoiled it.” ~G.K. Chesterton
Article after article, MSM news spot after spot, news release after news release, debates with Bill O’Reilly, we are hearing multiple so-called attacks on Christmas. Please, Christian community, don’t be fooled; the attack is on the commercialization of Christmas, not on Christ. If the church is responsible for and too closely associated with the commercialization of the biblical accounts and celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world, then it deserves such associations with the attacks. Think of it as judgment for the church’s own Christmas idolatry. Church, get beyond this. Stop whining. Repent where necessary.
This plague of privacy has had a devastating impact on the Church and its mission. North American Christians have embraced our culture’s fascination for privacy, at the same time ignoring its consequences. Because we treasure our “private cities,” we are governed not by the will of God or the Scriptures but by personal fulfillment. And we view life from a very narrow perspective. Our Christianity becomes trivial and private because we relegate it to the private sphere of our lives.
Guinness, in his book The Gravedigger File, laments that Christianity to the believer
“was once life’s central mystery, its worship life’s most awesome experience, its faith life’s broadest canopy of meaning as well as its deepest guarantee of belonging. Yet today, where religion still survives in the modern world, no matter how passionate or “committed” the individual believer may be, it amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare time hobby, a leisure pursuit.”
This worship of privacy has had devastating consequences for the Church’s participation in the missionary task. I have worked with many mission leaders. Almost every one of them have voiced a grave concern about the future of missions as they look upon contemporary missionary candidates. They know there is an all time high attrition rate among first term missionaries. The reason given most, “Young people go into missions in order to find personal fulfillment.”
Christians have been so captivated by our culture’s love affair with privacy that the gospel and world missions have paid a heavy price. When our own “personal fulfillment” is the center of Church life, the gospel of fulfillment replaces the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to the Philippian church puts a torch to the Christian’s “right to privacy” and ignites the Spirit’s passion among us to be participants in the work of the gospel.
An excerpt from my lay-commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Destroying Our Private Cities, Building Our Spiritual Life
. This book can be ordered in any Christian book store (ISBN: 1-594672-49-0), or order through book distributors like Amazon
“Chairman of the Board” shone in gold letters above the heavy oak door. Entering the luxurious office, my mother timidly approached the gentleman behind the imposing desk. They exchanged pleasantries for several minutes before he asked, “Now, what can I do for you?”
With a thump of the heart, she replied, “We have a small prayer group that meets once a week during lunch … and … well, we just wanted you to know that we are praying that Jesus will help you make good decisions in your business.”
The man leaned back in his high-backed leather chair. Finally he spoke. “I am a Christian,” he said, “but it’s been hard to live it in the business world and I’ve backslidden. I need to be seeking Christ’s direction. Thank you for praying.”
The daily lives of average Christians do influence and remind others of the importance of God’s perspectives on life. But too often we forget that truth and put our hopes for moral change into the electoral process—in electing a conservative government that will legislate the right kind of morality into law. One Christian leader recently declared, “We must elect Christians into government because the only way we will have righteousness in the land is through righteous legislation.”
After the recent elections in America, I announced to my “Critical Thinking” students that “we cannot expect government to win a majority over the issues that concern us most unless we, the people in the pew, learn to win our neighbors over to our point of view.” In fact I was calling for more than winning souls. Charles Malik, former president of the United Nations and a Christian, once said, “The problem is not only to win souls, but to save minds.” Legislation cannot change the hearts and minds of individuals about things like abortion, education or morality. Our hope lies in the Church being the Church, living Christianity in both the private and public spheres, and in individual believers who daily take the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit into their homes and marketplaces to allow God to use them there as instruments of change.
Christians certainly can make a difference in government. William Wilberforce is a shining example of that truth. He brought his Christian thinking into Britain’s’ House of Commons and through years of prayer, sound argument, and divine intervention, brought an end to the slave trade in England. But, while it is true that believers need to take leadership and be involved in the legislative process, we are naive and unwise if we pin our hopes on the false gods of politics.
The conservative victories of the ‘80s that were to have remedied the damage done in the decadent ‘60s and selfish ‘70s now seem to be gone with the wind. The landmark Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973 would at any moment, the headlines announced, be overturned by “the conservative majority” in the highest court in the land. Our hopes were high, but it never happened. Just when we thought the “moral majority” was winning, it seems we are facing the battle of our lives.
The winds of change are blowing, often with gale force, and the Church finds herself in a radically different environment than existed 200—or even 40—years ago. Our North American culture is no longer permeated with a Judeo-Christian worldview, and we are facing critical new challenges. But Christianity was born, not in a sympathetic, but pluralistic society, and through the efforts of ordinary Christians living their faith daily surrounded by pagan thinkers, an empire was eventually won for God.
We may do the same. Shortly after becoming a believer, Jack Eckerd, president and owner of Eckerd Drug Stores, happened to notice Penthouse and Playboy magazines staring at him from the racks in one of his stores. He removed the magazines, throwing away three million dollars in possible earnings, and convinced fellow drugstore owners to rid their shelves of the same pornography. Layman, even in the world of business, can make a difference, helping to change the moral climate without lobbying for a single law to be passed.
Change, paradoxically, seems to be the one thing that is here to stay, and many evangelical Christians are expressing serious concern about what lies ahead. In writing about the early Church, historian Will Durant said, “Christ met Caesar in the arena—and Christ won.” He is still with us today. But we must realize that the body of Christ will weather the storm if it is empowered—not by government and its laws, but—by living examples of righteousness, compassion, and Christ’s love in a changing world.
Originally published in Servant Magazine
, March 1993. Felt that it was a good time to reprint it on my blog in light of various electoral debates happening in the church and media. The content seemed rather relevant even for 19 years after its first appearance. The original essay was not only my first published work, it made it into print shortly after my daughter, Amanda, was born. Other essays and posts on my Words’nTone Facebook page
“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Most conservative and evangelical Christians are familiar with this tag line. It is frequently in witnessing to attract and connect seekers to God’s love, open individuals up to the claims of Christ, and promote individual interest in salvation, the Gospel, or even a certain church. But its prolific use only adds to the perception that the Gospel is about “me.” The line of thought reinforces the concept that the Bible’s story is all about “me.” I don’t dispute that God has shown us His love through sending His Son to die on a cross for sinners. But, making the Gospel (or the Bible for that matter) individual-centric skews how we hear and read biblical texts and myriad of Bible stories. This is particularly true in how many people hear the Luke 15 parable of the prodigal son. Even before we read or hear the parable, we assume the Biblical story as a whole is about me and God’s love for me. Then, this is affirmed by preachers who frame the parable to be about God’s love for “you.”
Most seem happy to hear about God’s love through the parable of the prodigal son. No questions asked beyond the “apparent” love the father in the story has for his lost son—if the wayward, reckless returns and realizes his wretchedness, the Father will welcome him and throw a big party! The parable is wrenched right out of Luke’s flow of thought and interpreted on its own and as if it was for “me.” However, the full force of Luke’s over all context, that is Jesus’ mission to reach out to the unclean, unloved, marginalized, and poor and bring them in to the Kingdom, shouts at us to hear the parable somewhat differently.
First, there are three parables—we tend to concentrate on the last and longest, mostly because we are told we can connect with the prodigal son or told we can have that intimate connection with the loving father. But all three parables should be considered together as we seek to interpret. Second, there is a long-bible-story aspect of the parable of the prodigal son that needs to be considered. In fact, I call this parable, the “parable of the two lost sons,” because of the Old Testament two-son storyline. So, we begin by looking at the introduction to the three parables of lost things and a review of why Jesus gives the parables in the first place—the context.
The entrance to hear the parables of Luke 15
The parables of the three lost things are introduced with the issue at hand. Jesus was gathering, not necessarily the elite, ceremonially clean, “righteous” acceptable crowd from among the religiously approved, but sinners and the despised. We read in vv. 1-2:
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
This sets up the parables in Luke 15 and is an obvious bridge from the preceding chapter. This attitude among the Jerusalem leadership, which is in line with the parable and teaching preceding Luke 15, is the reason the parables of the three parables of lost things are given in the first place (Luke 15:4-7, 8-10, 11-32): So He told them this parable, saying (v. 3).
We recall the earlier tension in 14:1: It happened that when He went into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat bread, they were watching Him closely. Prior to the familiar parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons, Luke highlights the tension between the Jerusalem leadership and Himself. Luke’s narrative in chapter 14, again, ensures that the reader will understand that this section of teaching concerns their religiosity, their attitudes of pride and place, and, as well, the issue of excluding/including of outsiders into the Kingdom. In Luke 14, the elite, self-righteous guests were “picking out the places of honor at the table” (v. 7). Jesus warns the guests, who were vying for such honor, to be careful, for while they seek the honor and expected places at the table, someone more honorable could arrive and they would be asked to “give your place to this man” (v. 9). (Strangely overlooked, the “someone more honorable” in the story are the outcasts and marginalized of society.) The lesson to be learned, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 11). And, just in case the crowd of religious elite and leaders, as well as, the readers of Luke’s Gospel, miss the point, Jesus points out:
And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” When one of those who were reclining at the table with Him heard this, he said to Him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:12-15)
Jesus, then, concludes the kingdom banquet parable, where those expected to come had excuses for not attending (14:16-20), with an invitation list that turns outward to the “streets and the lanes of the city,” to “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (v 21c). Once the new invitees were seated, there was still room, so the Master instructed, “Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (v. 23) for none from the expected guests “shall taste of my dinner” (v. 24).
There is no doubt that Jesus’ is contrasting and confronting attitudes that resist the inclusion of outcasts and outsiders into the Kingdom. The despised, religiously unclean, and the unwanted are to be invited into the gathering. Then in Luke 15 we have three parables of lost things that were sought after, found, and a grand party is given to rejoice and celebrate that the lost was found—as were the outcasts sought and found and brought into the party of the Kingdom!
I strongly suggest that the parables in Luke 15 and particularly the lengthy prodigal son (or as I prefer, the parable of the two lost sons) should be heard within this context: The outcast, the poor, and marginalized are to be intentionally sought after to be guests at the table of the Kingdom. The parable of the prodigal son is less about God’s love toward the sinner, than the love that the community of faith is to have for the poor, outcasts, and marginalized in and throughout their community.
Emil Brunner, the Swiss Theologian, famously remarked, “For every civilization, for every period of history, it is true to say, ‘show me what kind of gods you have, and I will tell you what kind of humanity you possess.’” Poignantly sharp. Yet, the emphasis Brunner gives here is on the kind of person you are. But more importantly, for Christians, we should be concerned, as well, with the kind of God we follow.
The context surrounding the parable of the prodigal son seems to suggest that the Christian community ought to have an association to the economically vulnerable populations that are part of their wider communities. Some of whom will be outside your daily social habits. People know more about the God you claim to worship by the associations you have through the habits of your social life. If we take the Bible seriously, we can give a slight reworking to Brunner’s assertion: Show me what kind of association you have with those living with the affects of poverty, and I will tell you what kind of god you worship.
As we move to Luke 15 and the parable of lost things, let’s start with an interesting question. Be honest. If you didn’t know the outcome of the parable of the prodigal son—the end of the story, who would more likely be your acquaintance, the son who stayed home in the father’s palace or the prodigal son who was greedy, impetuous, reckless, and eventually eats with the pigs? Be honest, now. Even if you tried to pick the wayward son, take a look at your neighbors, friends, and social acquaintances and that will tell you whom you would choose. My first response is WWJD, or better, who would Jesus be associated with? (Is that WWJBAW?)
An introduction to Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son
As we enter into Luke 15 and seek to rehear the familiar and beloved parable of the prodigal son, we need to clear away some of the wax build up in our ears. Most Christians have a preconceived interpretation of this parable: The primary notion is to think the parable is about us—really about “me” personally. Even before we begin to hear the story, immediately we assume the parable is about God the Father loving me so much that he’d overlook all my sinful behavior and consider me a son. First, Luke’s Gospel has not been promoting privatized application through its teaching and parables—we can see that throughout chapter 14, and then 16-21.
Second, the parable of the banquet in chapter 14 strongly suggests that we are to seek out the prodigals (i.e., the poor, the economically vulnerable, and the marginalized). This parallels with the point of the three things that are lost in Luke 15, but are sought and found—with joy. And, then later, capping a series of parables and teaching, we are reminded through the Zacchaeus, the tax-collector, event that Jesus, who is the Son of Man, came to seek and to save what was lost (19:10). So whatever the prodigal son parable is about, the context seems to suggest it is related to the overall teaching on the poor that has been embedded throughout Luke’s Gospel; a more fitting application related to the Christian community to go seek those outside its regular social habits.
A strange twist has recently been given to the parable of the prodigal in Luke 15. A rather famous and very popular preacher has attempted to shift the prodigal-ness to the father of the story. If we start with the assumption that this parable is about God the Father’s love for me, me, me, it seems natural to agree that the real prodigal of the story is the father, who recklessly and extravagantly showers me with love and forgiveness even if I’ve come straight from the pigsty. By taking an obscure definition of the English word for prod•i•gal (reckless, extravagant; having spent everything) and spinning a strained connotation to describe the father, we forsake the natural and contextual reading of this pivotal parable. Forcing this English-text definition, which might produce hip, trendy, and a more contemporary interpretation that helps people in the pew “connect” with God better, then causes us to disregard the teaching and emphasis that surrounds the parable.
The parable, simply put, is not about how God loves you and me; but how our attitude about outsiders are contrary to the Gospel, opposes God’s will in Christ Jesus, and is contrary to the presence of God’s Kingdom. It’s more about not living up to the discipleship required and implied by the Gospel, than about learning about God’s love for me and you “no matter which son you are.” There are plenty of other texts that legitimately speak to God’s love toward sinful man. This parable, really, isn’t. We trade away sound exegesis, as well as the surrounding context, for a contemporary, feel-good interpretation that keeps the Christian community from hearing what is actually a very severe text on discipleship.
In the concluding posts, I’d like to point us toward the intention of Luke’s parable of the two sons. We’ll make a number of observations. Listen to the text anew and draw some possible implications.
In Ron Sider’s scathing book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, we learn that white evangelicals are the most likely to object to neighbors of another race. We are far more comfortable with “our kind” and “our neighbors” than we are with those outside our normal, everyday habits and social connections. As a younger Christian and one who was in ministerial training, I recall bristling at a rather casual comment made by a pastor of a church I was attending: “We really love this couple. They are our kind of people.” Even then, in my more narrow-minded and fundamentalist days of youthful faith, I knew there was something wrong with this comment. I wasn’t sure what “our kind” was other than “they fit comfortably in our congregation because they are like us.” These are not good traits for evangelical Christians. No wonder “a mere 22% of people have a positive view of evangelicals” (Sider, Scandal, p 28).
As we slowly make the turn to the Luke 15 parables of lost things and the prodigal son, we should recall Luke’s emphasis on the poor. This can also be seen in the early chapters of his Gospel.
At the beginning, the Spirit falls on Jesus and He is anointed to preach the Good News to the poor, release to the captives, healing for the blind, and freedom to those who are oppressed (cf. 4:18). It does not seem fair to Luke simply to devotionalize these words from his Gospel, for it steals the good doctor’s very obvious emphasis that the community of faith is to have on those affected by the pains of poverty. Then in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20). Then in a short while, as Jesus travels throughout the land on His mission, He tells John the Baptist’s disciples, “Go and report that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised—and what?—the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” (7:22). This is to affirm that Jesus was fulfilling the mission prophesied of Him in the Old Testament, a mission related to the economically vulnerable.
As previously noted, a third of Luke’s Gospel contains significant amount of references, both in parables and in teaching, to the poor and marginalized (chapters 13-21). If the earlier texts in Luke highlighted above are also considered, the poor and economically vulnerable are so embedded in Luke’s Gospel narrative that to ignore them is to turn a deaf ear to what God is saying through His word.
The three parables of lost things, which include the beloved parable of the prodigal son, do not directly mention the “poor” or the “marginalized” as do the obvious references elsewhere. However, two final notes before heading to Luke 15: First, how does Luke’s obvious emphasis on the poor and economically vulnerable play a part in interpreting the significance of the parable of the prodigal son? Second, it is a curious thing, even the parable of the prodigal son ends with him in poverty just before his father welcomes him back and throws a big party. An interesting juxtaposition with the Luke 14 parable of the great banquet.
Throughout chapters 13-21 Luke has affirmed, in various ways, that the Christian community is to rub personalities and life habits with all sorts—and if we are to consider Luke’s obvious emphasis—this includes the poor and marginalized of society. In fact, returning to the parables of the banquet, we are to reach out to those who are not our neighbors, those definitely estranged from our everyday social habits—reaching out to the alleyways and streets littered with the marginalized and the poor.
Anytime a familiar interpretation of a beloved text or biblical story is called into question, much care is needed in explaining why that traditional interpretation is now quite right. Hearing the up-coming Luke 15 parable of the prodigal son in a very different, non-traditional way requires careful work by the one making the “new” interpretation; but it also takes hard work by the listener to follow the context. The parables and teachings in Luke14 and 15 demand some application related to the economically vulnerable. And we’ve already looked at what leads into Luke 14-15. Now, let’s consider Luke’s context and flow of thought after Luke 15.
After the lost and found parables in Luke 15, Luke sets up his story-line to contrast the pursuit of possessions and the pursuit of the things of God (16:1-13).
“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (16:10-13).
The Pharisees recognized that the words were directed at them, for they were scoffing at Jesus: Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him (16:14). Then Jesus points out that the Jerusalem leadership, who were lovers of money, attempted to justify themselves before man rather than seeking to please God (16:14-15). Interestingly Jesus appeals to the issue of divorce to highlight the way in which the Jerusalem leadership selectively appeals to parts of the Law to justify themselves. The point will be that the whole Law must be kept.
The divorce reference is a backward look at Deuteronomy 24. It is mostly overlooked that Deuteronomy 24 is contextually about “the poor” and the economically vulnerable. In Deut 24 the divorced woman would be considered economically vulnerable, which fits the fuller context of the chapter. In 24:17 there is the command, “You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge” (v. 17). And then, in vv 19-21, we find the gleaning law is set to protect and provide for the alien, orphan, and the widow—a group consistently referred to throughout Exodus-Deuteronomy as economically vulnerable.
The next teaching centers on a contrast between “a rich man” and “a poor man Lazarus” (Luke 16:19ff.). The conclusion of this parable speaks to the danger of being wealthy and being unconcerned for the poor. This parable illustrates Jesus’ point of keeping the whole Law and the Prophets. This parable hinges on the issue of poverty. No matter how one reads it, it is there.
Following the rich man-poor Lazarus contrast, we run into a “foreigner” who is a leper, grateful to be cleansed by Jesus (Luke 17). Then we encounter a widow looking for justice (Luke 18). In Luke 19 a tax-collector, Zacchaeus, enters into the realm of faith, and as a testimony of his new found commitment to following Jesus, he pledges to give to the poor and return what he had defrauded:
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Back in Luke 15, the three parable of lost things (which includes the prodigal), each story highlights something that is lost, sought for, and found. Interestingly Jesus concludes the Zacchaeus event with words that are linked back to the parables in Luke 15: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (vv. 9-10).
Shortly, after a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership—and right before Jesus’ judgment on the temple (in chapter 21), we encounter the “poor widow” whose last pennies were required of her just so she can participate in temple activities. Jesus’ final observation fits well with the overall teaching that contrasts those who pursue wealth and status at the expense of or unconcern for the poor.
As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:1-4).
The emphasis, overall, throughout Luke 14-19 contrasts the rich that give out of their wealth and the poor who are forced to give just to survive out of their poverty. We should also note that Luke 15 and the parable of the two-lost sons, too, ends in poverty, for this is the condition the prodigal son finds himself at the end of the story. The wealthy, well-to-do-son who stays at home, enjoying the fine things of his father’s house, is self-righteous about his position in the house. Isn’t that the condition of all the characters and/or the objects of the lessons (i.e., those the teaching is directed toward) in chapter 14 and, then, 16-21?
There are twenty-four chapters in Luke; eight contain multiple references directly regarding the poor. That’s a third of the content of the Gospel. There is nothing magic here. No secret hidden message. The contrast between the unconcerned wealthy verses the poor and marginalized is obviously throughout the context. The fact that so much of the context concerns the poor, we do injustice to the text if we simply spiritualize the teachings and the parables to be “about my heart,” that is to privatize the application. If we miss what Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, puts in the context, we will not listen well to the text and our hearing of the parable of the prodigal son will be impaired.
At one time or another we’re all accused of not listening. Worse, we’ve been accused of selective hearing. Both of these shortcomings find their way into our interpretation of biblical passages, as well. We tend not to listen to the original author’s flow of thought. And worse, we can have selective hearing. Too often we treat the Bible as a super-grocery store, where each verse, sometimes even each phrase, or each word is a separate item to be purchased on its own apart from what the author has been and will be saying—purchased, if you will, out of context.
Imagine how you feel when this happens to your thoughts, spoken or written, when someone lifts only a part, out of context, out of the flow of your thought, and does with it as they please. And no one needs to tell me how they feel when others selectively hear only what they want to hear when you have something to say (or write for that matter). These are very good reasons from our own personal experience to be mindful to consider the biblical author’s wider context and flow of thought as well. Getting to know the wider context helps our listening to the text under study. Here, in this case, Luke 14-15.
Listening to the wider context of Luke 14-15: Even before we encounter the parables in Luke 14-15, we hear that all people face the same judgment as sinners, no matter one’s public persona, status, religiosity, or the “appearance” that some look less than or more “sinful” than others. All must repent or likewise perish (13:1-5). We learn that a fig-tree not bearing fruit is to be cut down (13:6-9). We hear of a sickly, poor woman, uncared for by the leadership, healed of a long term illness and the synagogue leadership finding this intolerable because the healing took place on the Sabbath (13:10-17). We learn that the Kingdom of God is like a garden with a large-branching tree that grows in its midst that offers the birds of the air safety and rest (vv. 18-19). A little digging here and we discover the reference to the tree is from the Old Testament (Dan 4:10; Ez 17:23; 31:3; Ps 92:12), implying a righteous king would protect and provide shelter, protection and subsidence to all its vulnerable subjects. We encounter Jesus teaching in one city and then the next, learning that just because someone looks outwardly like they belong at the banquet, they are not necessarily invited to the table in the Kingdom of God (vv. 22-30). Nonetheless, Jesus tells us that many will come from all four corners of the known world to recline at the table (v. 30). And finally, as the text pivots toward Luke 14, we discover that the Jerusalem leadership seeks to dispel and dismiss Jesus out of fear that His teaching will rock the political boat (vv. 31-35).
The immediate context to Luke 14-15 is essential to hearing the banquet and prodigal son parables. We encounter in chapter 13 a series of episodes and teachings that highlight the conflict Jesus has with the Jerusalem leadership. We hear that status is mere mirage, granting illusionary comfort to those with power. The presence of the Kingdom exposes and changes everything.
The juxtaposed elite and the economically vulnerable: Luke has created a narrative world that juxtaposes Jesus’ conflict with Jerusalem leadership and those who are affected by the issues of poverty. There is little doubt, as in the other synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Mark), that Jesus has an issue with the Jerusalem leadership and the religious elite. As Jesus begins to teach and perform healings (5:17), the scribes and Pharisees ask, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” (5:21). It isn’t long before the Jerusalem leadership complains and grumbles, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (5:30). Again “some Pharisees” begin to question Jesus’ Sabbath-keeping, asking, “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (6:2). They continue to watch Him closely, so they can keep up the accusations (6:7). Luke indicates that while Jesus was about God’s business, the Pharisees and temple-lawyers had “rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John” (7:30).
Mostly, all common folk were Pharisee in religious framework. The common, non-elite were typically poor, yet pious, peasant farmers and artisans that made up the general population. However, the Jerusalem leadership considered them as outsiders, “sinners” who do not know the Law. While at a dinner with some leading Pharisees, a woman had slipped, unnoticed at first, into the party and begun to anoint Jesus’ feet with alabaster perfume (7:36-38). The host Pharisee complained, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner” (7:39).
Luke is setting up a dividing line between insiders and outsiders both materially and religiously. Jesus, however, was breaking down that wall: Jesus “allowed” sinners, the unclean and outsiders, to touch Him and He reciprocated by spending time with them. Jesus interacted with the religiously unclean, the ceremonially unwashed, and the demon-possessed (cf. Luke 11).This isn’t simply a “works righteous” crowd (the religiously elite) verses a “faith righteousness” crowd, for all are sinners and in need of repentance. It is far better and more in line with the narrative to see Luke making an insider-outsider storyline, one where Jesus is rewriting the definitions of insider and outsider because the Kingdom has arrived. This is highlighted in Luke 11:39 where the Pharisees complaint that Jesus is consorting with the religiously unclean. Jesus responsed, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness” (11:39). And then, He strongly rebukes:
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the chief seats in the synagogues and the respectful greetings in the market places” (11:42-43).
Jesus rebukes their elite status and relates their “separateness” to the issue of justice. Afterward, it is clear that the scribes and Pharisees became very hostile and continue to confronted and questioned Jesus (11:53). Jesus warns His followers to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which He clearly marks as hypocrisy (12:2).
As we enter into parables and teachings of chapters 14 and 15, Luke readies us to think in terms of “an elite” who separate themselves from the marginalized and poor. This is in the text; deciding what to do with it rests in our desire to apply what we hear from the context and Luke 14-15. As we prepare for the banquet (chapter 14) and are set to enter into the parables of lost things (chapter 15), we find ourselves equally sinners as those who are marginalized among us. We are prepared to question whether our habits of the heart make us “an elite” who separate ourselves from ensuring that all people, including the poor and marginalized, are sought out to be a part of the table at God’s Kingdom.
In 1967 Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier starred in a ground breaking movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a rather distressing drama on the controversial subject of interracial marriage. Joanna ‘Joey’ Drayton, a young white woman had fallen in love with a black man. Returning home with her new found love, Dr. John Prentice, played by Sidney Poitier, the story revolves around the reactions of family and friends to this discomforting situation. At a time when the United States was dealing with issues of racism as a cultural sin, this movie drew upon the difficulty of overcoming a very bad social habit of the heart. At one point Dr. Prentice quipped to Joanna, “After all, a lot of people are going to think we are a shocking pair.”
Luke introduces a series of parables and teaching in Luke 14-19 by asking a rather poignant question: Guess who’s coming to dinner? The parable of the guests and dinner banquet begin a section in Luke’s Gospel that can make the listening community of faith rather uncomfortable.
In the following thread, we will take a look at Luke 14-15, famous for the parables of the Great Banquet and, of course, the prodigal son. The goal is to listen to the text to determine, in light of Jesus’ coming and the arrival of God’s kingdom, whose company the Christian community is to keep—in other words, who’s coming to dinner? The series of parables and teachings in this section (which extends to Luke 19) deal with the Christian community’s association to outsiders. Our task is to listen to the text and hear which outsiders Luke has in mind—and what it might mean for local Christian communities. Through the teaching in this section of Luke’s Gospel, the Christian community will discover they are to be associated to the economically vulnerable and to the poor. An uncomfortable situation, like the family in the 1967 movie, that today’s non-poor Christians must face: the uniting together those of evangelical faith with the populations that are affected by the pangs of poverty. In some sense, similar to Dr. Prentice’s comment to Joanna in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the confessing evangelical should hear, a lot of people are going to think they are a shocking pair.
And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” When one of those who were reclining at the table with Him heard this, he said to Him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:7-15).
Luke 14 and the Parable of the Banquet: Much of the teaching found in Luke 14-19 make reference to various economically vulnerable populations that are affected by the issues of poverty. This is overlooked, perhaps ignored by most contemporary, self-sufficient, “I-did-it-on-my-own,” suburban Christians. Nonetheless, whatever we are to make of these parables and teachings, they force the listener of the text to consider who’s coming to dinner—who is supposed to be at the table, in the fellowship, part of the community of believers as it is presented in the Gospel.
Luke 14 begins a set of parables that stem from the conflict existing between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership, the Pharisees (14:1), as well as from “scribes” and “chief priests” as indicated throughout Luke 5-15. As we begin, there was “man suffering from dropsy” (v. 2) and noting the demeaner of the “special honored guests,” some lawyers and pharisees, Jesus asks them, “Is of lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (v. 3). Dispite their silence, Jesus heals the unhonored guest. We know the parables are addressing something about Jesus’ Sabbath question, for immediately the texts says, And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table (v. 7). Somehow the answer about dinner guests is related to the question of healing the sickly man at the party on the Sabbath: the issue of healing a sick person on the Sabbath is followed by a parable related to the jockeying of the house guest for the best positions at the table (14:7-11) and excuses for not attending an upcoming dinner-party (14:15-20) and who should be invited to the dinner (14:12-14 and 14:21-23).
The problem of pride and status clouds the hearts of those who should be more mindful about who should be at the table—who should be among the invited guests. The “positions-of-pride” teaching is directly related to ensuring that those associated with the issues of poverty, the outcasts, the marginalized (out on the streets and back alleys) are invited; those who cannot repay (or support the church budget!) are to be invited (14:12-14). In fact the teaching includes the command, do not invite your friends or brothers or relative or rich neighbors (v. 12). Now that will take a lot of undoing and spinning on the application level for any preacher! Because in my application I have heard over the last thirty-some years as a Christian is that we are to reach out to our family, friends, and acquaintances. But there it is, in the text. This list—this teaching—puts the outreach beyond our circle of comfort. Then if the first teaching wasn’t clear enough, the follow-up parable makes it crystal:
Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame (v. 21).
And when it is noticed that there is still room, the command is given to go back out and find more (v. 22) .
This is the lead teaching as we enter into the three parables of lost things being found (Luke 15). Before we even get to the famous parable of the prodigal son, are preconceived notions of what it means and how we should apply it should be informed by the teaching in Luke 14—if we are listening.
So, first, we are instructed to forsake pride and status, for we have no right to be at the table of Christ and it clouds the issue of who else should be invited to the table of the Kingdom. Second, the clash between our perceived status in society can hinder us from being at the table ourselves and keep us from welcoming others of lesser status to join the Kingdom banquet. And third, noting the emphasis in the text, the community of listeners (community of believers) should intentionally reach out beyond its comfortable neighbors and seek out those at the margins of society to be welcomed guests of the faith community.
I have posted this elsewhere and linked it from Wordsn’Tone, but that site is no longer available. So I thought I’d post the threat in toto
Christian books on missions and evangelism can typically fall into the “how-to” category, and as a result focus, not on biblical exegesis or exposition, but on relevancy to the consumer, “the practical,” and, particularly, verbal activities. The view that narrowly relegates evangelism and mission to verbal activities is taken head on by John Dickson in The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission. Although bold, casual and gentle proclamation of the Gospel is not downplayed or diminished, Dickson promotes the wide range of activities that the church community and the individual Christian have at their disposal for the ministry of the Gospel.
Filled with experiences of success and, even, failure, Dickson offers the Christian community a thorough study that helps local church communities find their place in God’s mission to the world around them. He deals with the shortcomings of techniques and shows how truncating the Gospel down theologically to just “concepts of sin and grace” hinder congregations from truly engaging the community they are to serve with the claims and blessings of the Gospel. Dickson reminds us that the good news of Jesus Christ is narrated in Gospels (a story-form genre), which opens missions and evangelism to a wide range of life, story-telling, events, prayer, even just godly behavior as means to promote and communicate the Good News.
“The concept of promoting the gospel obviously includes evangelism, but it also tries to give a proper place to things like prayer, godly behavior and answering for the faith, all of which are explicitly connected in the New Testament with God’s plan to save his people. Such activities are not separate from the work if the gospel; they are supportive of it and vial to it.”
These components (i.e., prayer, et. al.) make up the various chapters of The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission.
Dickson emphasizes the role of the church community has in doing mission rather than simply individuals. Referring to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14, he writes, “The statement ‘yous [plural] are the light [singular]’ suggests that Jesus has in mind the company of disciples rather than believers individually.” Dickson shows that a community-centered view of mission best enables the church to utilize a wide range of talents and gifts that everyone in the congregation can bring to the ministry of the Gospel.
The Best Kept Secret promotes a full range of activities that can present Jesus to the world and draw people to Him—not just activities that involve “speaking.” Every facet of our lives and the community life of the church can be harnessed to promote the good news of God’s power and mercy. Dickson puts forward creative and well-studied insight into the variety of ways every member of a church community can be involved in promoting and spreading the Good News. The Best Kept Secret is inspiring and will, as one reviewer stated, liberate the reader from “guilt and self-consciousness in evangelism into becoming perfectly natural promoters of Jesus Christ.”
Preconceived notions about the parable of the prodigal son can keep us from hearing Luke’s intentions and mis-apply the parable...more on Luke 14-15, click here...
For the previous 4 posts to this thread...click here