Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Friend Who Wouldn't Quit (May 23, 2010)

If you grew up in the 70's like I did, you probably remember Godspell…or the song “Day by Day." It's the background music playing as Greg (Ben Stiller) goes shopping with his fiancĂ© in the romantic comedy, Meet the Parents. Later, when they ask him to say grace in an awkward moment, this is what comes out of his mouth: "Oh, dear God, thank you. You are such a good God to us…So we thank you, O sweet Lord of hosts, for the smorgasbord that you have so aptly lain at our table this day, and each day. Day by day…. Day by day by day. O dear Lord, three things, we pray: to love thee more dearly, to see thee more clearly, to follow thee more nearly. Day by day, by day. Amen."

What makes that moment so funny is that we feel the discomfort and awkwardness of a guy who's trying to act "religious" in order to please his girl friend's family. Whatever we think about the song, it expresses an intimate friendship with God that many of us don’t feel we can authentically claim. In The Story of the Friend Who Wouldn’t Quit (Luke 11: 5-13) Jesus helps us see how such an intimate relationship is possible with the God who calls us his friends and invites us to come to him boldly and honestly. Here are three truths that characterize that friendship…

As God’s needy friends, we will boldly request his help. “And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs" (5-8).

Jesus’ story is told in the form of a question: Can you imagine waking up a friend in the middle of the night to request some bread for an unexpected visitor who has come to your house? The fact is that you and I -- living in the 21st century -- can’t imagine knocking on someone’s door at midnight for a loaf of bread, when we could go down the street and buy it; or, if the market is closed, simply wait until morning! But in Jesus’ day this would have seemed like a legitimate request. Why?

Well, as Kenneth Bailey points out in his book, Poets & Peasants, a first century visitor might arrive at your door at any time because there were no phones or postal services. Nor would it be unusual for someone to arrive late because journeys were slow and, in the heat of summer, it was better to travel at night. The point is that it’s a situation he could not have planned for. Regardless of when a visitor arrived, it was expected that you would provide a meal, especially after a long journey. In this story, the host has run out of bread, (which is the knife and fork of a Middle Eastern meal)! He wasn’t asking for the whole dinner…just the knife and fork to eat it with.

One more thing: hospitality was the whole village’s responsibility, not just one family…and so this midnight request though inconvenient was really not that unusual. So Jesus asks if his listeners can imagine asking a neighbor for help in such a situation, and they would have said, “YES”. But, he goes on: Can you imagine that this friend of yours might not want to be bothered, that he would use the lame excuse that his children are in bed with him, or that he doesn’t want to unbolt the door (7)? As a listener who understands the sacred duty of hospitality, you would have said “NO WAY!” To refuse such a request would be unthinkable!

Jesus finishes the story saying that if this reluctant friend would get up and help you not because you are his friend, but “because of your persistence” (8), how much more will your heavenly father get up to help you when you simply ask. In other words, your heavenly Father is not reluctant but eager to hear your requests. God delights in my asking…both for myself, and for others – just as the friend who came at midnight asked not only for himself, but for his hungry friend.

Philip Yancey was asked a year ago by Time magazine how to pray during an economic crisis like the one we’ve been experiencing. He gave some good advice. You can begin, he said, by crying, “Help me!” For someone who faces a job cut or a health crisis or watches retirement savings wither away -- prayer offers a way to voice fear and anxiety. Yancey says, “I have learned to resist the tendency to edit my prayers so that they sound sophisticated and mature. I believe God wants us to come exactly as we are, no matter how childlike we may feel. The other part of “Help me!” is “Help me to learn from this catastrophe." Help me to see that you must be the foundation of my life. Because if I put my ultimate trust in financial security or in the government’s ability to solve my problems…I will see that foundation crumble.

If the first prayer in a crisis is “Help me!" the second prayer must be “Help them!” The same week that global wealth shrank by $7 trillion, Zimbabwe's inflation rate hit a record 231 million percent. In other words, if you had saved $1 million Zimbabwean dollars by Monday, on Tuesday it was worth $158. Yancey said, “This sobering fact leads me to the…most difficult stage of prayer in crisis: I need God's help in taking my eyes off my own problems in order to look with compassion on the truly desperate. …” [Philip Yancey, "A Surefire Investment," (2-3-09)]. And so we boldly pray, “Help us Lord…and help us to help them too.”
As God’s real friends, our requests will proceed in the manner of a dynamic relationship. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened" (9-11).

If the first point of this parable and what follows is meant to encourage us to make requests of God, the second point is that our requests will proceed in the manner of a dynamic relationship. Prayer is often about asking, but it’s never just about asking, as if God was a cosmic bell-hop. Prayer is not mechanical like putting quarters in a coke machine, or ordering pizza for home delivery. Prayer is not a formula we have to figure out. It is communication between persons; it is about a relationship. Remember that Jesus says it is “because of his persistence [that] he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you….” Jesus encourages “perseverance” in prayer (The Greek word, anaeidea literally means, “shameless boldness"). He tells us to ask, seek, & knock (The present imperatives here convey the sense of continuous action in the present. Ask, and keep on asking...knock and keep on knocking. Why? Because prayer often involves patiently in any relationship. We don't simply demand things from our spouse...we ask patiently, we wait, and we take into account his or her will and desires as well.

In other words, don’t play “doorbell ditch” with God -- a childhood game where you ring a doorbell and run. No, you have to knock and wait until the door is opened, until you get a reply and the matter is resolved, as in all real relationships. Does this mean that God will not answer our prayers until we have knocked long enough? Is God playing games with us? No, it means that prayer must take into account not simply our will and desires, but God’s will and desires.

By the way, thank God we do not always get what we want! If we did, as C. S. Lewis once observed, we would likely destroy ourselves (Work & Prayer, God in the Dock).” And remember that when God does want to give us what we want it will probably mean changes in us, and in other people…which often takes time.

Jesus teaches us one more thing about prayer in this parable which is truly breathtaking, and that is that God chooses to be moved by our prayers…and I find that exciting. God is so powerful, that he can also be flexible. The scriptures clearly teach that while God’s nature, identity, and over-arching purposes for humankind are unchanging, his intentions with regard to many particular matters that concern us is not inflexible. Case in point, in 2 Kings 20: 1-6 Isaiah tells Hezekiah that he will die; but the Lord hears his prayer for more time and adds 15 more years to his life. This week, a resident missionary at our church who works as the director of our International Student Ministry received an "Intention to Deny Request" from the INS regarding his green card application. Now I believe this is a call to prayer…not despair. I asked my congregation to join me in praying that the Lord might see fit to open the door and allow him to remain where he is helping us to build friendships and share the gospel with dozens and dozens of international students who live in nearby UCLA married student housing.

So, be encouraged! Your prayers do make a difference, and God is moved by them, because he has chosen to be moveable. Again, this flexibility and interactivity shows God’s greatness, not his weakness. As needy friends Jesus wants us to ask God for help. As real friends, Jesus wants us to come to God in the manner of a real dynamic relationship that takes into account not only our will and desires but God’s. Jesus’ story of The Friend Who Wouldn’t Quit has encouraged us to come to God and ask, and to ask boldly. After all, he is our Mighty Friend! Blessed with that knowledge, we’re ready to ask him for the best gift of all…

As our Mighty Friend, God’s desire is that we ask for and receive his greatest gift…the gift of the Holy Spirit. "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (12-13)!

Imagine the unimaginable, Jesus says: imagine that your son asked for a fish sandwich, and you threw a snake on his plate; or that your daughter asked for some egg salad, and you put a scorpion between two slices of bread! What father or mother would do such a thing? Many of us imagine God to be just like that or worse (which may tell us more about our own families than it does about God). Let's face it: we will never come to God boldly in prayer if we think he is cruel, distant or disinterested. Whatever your family history, God is your loving Father. He loves and wants to give you good gifts…and the greatest gift of all is his Holy Spirit.

Because it is the Holy Spirit who tells us the truth about our own brokenness, who draws us into a love relationship with the Father and the Son, and who is the very presence of Jesus dwelling within us, helping us to live like him. Jesus’ promise is that the one who seeks God’s Spirit, will receive it! “For everyone who asks, receives and everyone who seeks, finds.” Now as we think about receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit …I want to return to The Story of the Friend Who Wouldn’t Quit. Here Jesus gave us a picture of a needy friend who went to his Mighty Friend on behalf of a hungry friend.

As I was running around the park the other day I passed a woman I’ve seen before who suffers from schizophrenia. She was speaking loudly to herself and was disturbed. The first and second time I passed her I said nothing, but as I passed her the third time -- I spoke to her spirit. “God bless you!” She turned and looked at me and smiled. The fourth time, I stopped and said: “God bless you! Jesus loves you! Be filled with his Spirit!” Her eyes opened wide and she smiled at me, "Thank you! God bless you! I’ll see you the next time” she replied. That was the most rational thing I've ever heard her say. I know God’s Spirit touched her, and on that particular day, she was my hungry friend, and Jesus was calling me to come to him on her behalf.

Who is your hungry friend? God wants us to seek the Holy Spirit not only for ourselves but for others. Like the friend who came at midnight, he wants us to pray that those are sitting next to us would be filled with the Holy Spirit (see John 14: 15-17, 26; Galatians 5:22; 1 Corinthians 12:7; Romans 8:9; Acts 1: 7-8, 2:4, 4:31; Ephesians 5:18) that the Spirit would have the fullest control of their lives, and bless them with God’s peace. You may feel spiritually exhausted, discouraged, or simply hungry for more of what God has for you today. You may feel like giving up on hope and on God, but Jesus says, Everyone who asks, receives.” If you desire to be filled with the Spirit, than I encourage you to ask someone who knows the Lord to pray for you with the laying on of hands. I also encourage you to go to the Lord on behalf of a hungry friend this week. When we pray for the Spirit’s filling, when we ask for his love to be poured out on a friend, we too will be blessed. 
Thank you God that even if we feel like quitting you are the Mighty Friend who will never quit on us, who loves us, and who longs to give us the gift of your indwelling by day by day. And so we cry, “Come, Holy Spirit!” You reveal to us the truth of our own sin, and bring us from darkness into the light. We long for this. You are the Comforter and Counselor in all our troubles. We long for this. You breathe the mind and life of Christ into us so that we might live as he did. We long for this. You bring the gifts and power of God so that we might do the work of the kingdom: proclaiming and reaching, healing and blessing, equipping and sending. We long for this. Now, believing that all who ask, will receive -- we receive you, Holy Spirit, by faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

You've Got Talent

This past week, I watched – as many of you did – a news story about a group of young girls dancing and girating in provocative costumes to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” I thought it was simply bizarre to watch eight and nine year old girls bumping and grinding in a music video. The parents, of course, were totally fine with it. They'd brought them to this performing arts school to learn how to be triple threats -- how to sing, dance, and act. As far as these parents were concerned, they were just using their talents.

To be “talented” in today’s culture means that you've been recognized as having gifts in a particular area, but in large part the emphasis is upon a select group of people with exceptional abilities. How many of us secretly wish we could be "discovered" on America's Got Talent or American Idol?   It would probably come as a surprise to many that the idea of having "talents" and using them originates with Jesus' two thousand year old Parable of the Talents.  Given the crazy ideas we currently have about what it means to be "talented," I think it would be helpful to take a look at Jesus' story in Matthew 25: 14-30 where he teaches us that every one of us, not a select few, has not only been given a talent but the opportunity to use our talent for the glory of God.

Chapter I: The Great Hand-Over: "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away" (14-15).

Jesus describes a man who is about to go away on a long journey. Notice that the Traveler first calls his servants…and then returns to check on their service. The Traveler is Jesus who arrived 2000 years ago to call people to follow him, and who left this earth for an unknown time period. It’s a Story about life in the interim period between his two comings…and a preview of what it shall be like when we meet him face to face -- whether at death or at his coming again. That being said, what do we learn about our Master here?

First, our Master is rich – he gives huge sums of money. A talanton was the largest unit of accounting in Greek money, equivalent to 6-10,000 Middle Eastern denarii (a denarii being a day’s wage for skilled labor) – a massive sum. Yet later, he describes what he gave to his servants as only “a few things”! Our Master has tremendous resources at his disposal…far beyond anything we can imagine. Second, our Master is confident in us – in that he “entrusts (lit. ‘hands over’) his property to us.” To underscore this divine trust, Jesus tells us that to one he gives five talents, to another two, and to another one (15). And if you’re feeling like a “one talent” servant today…remember that according to the value of a single talent, even the one talent servant was entrusted with a lifetime of wages! Third, our Master is wise – he gives to teach of us “according to his/her ability” (15): literally, ‘according to his individual or unique power.' There is only one you; which means only you can do what you alone were designed to do! Our Lord knows this, and so he gives customized gifts and responsibilities that suit our unique design, place, and time.

Listen! You don’t need a reality TV show to tell you that you’ve got talent. God gave you talents before you were born…he gave you a body, he gave you a mind. He gave you abilities. He gave you a circle of influence. He gave you possessions. He gave you this planet. He gave you time and opportunity. I don’t care whether you’re from Britain, Bombay, or Beminda…you’ve got talent.

Chapter II: The Two Thrill-Seekers: "The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (16-23).

Jesus tells us that when the master left, the servants who received the five and two talents “went at once and traded with them and made more” (16). The word “at once” or "immediately" (Greek: eutheos) is the single most exciting word in Jesus’ Story of the Talents says Dale Bruner (see his brilliant two volume Matthew commentary, The Christbook, and The Churchbook). Think about it.... Eutheos means that this servant takes whatever the Lord gives and goes instantly to work with it. He was so thrilled to have been entrusted with this gift that he couldn’t wait to go out and do something with it!

Eutheos means today. Not tomorrow, not next week or next month, or next year, but today. The fact that these thrill-seeking servants went out immediately reminds us that there is always something we can do today to use what we’ve been given for God’s glory… If you need to take charge of your health…you can start walking today or make changes in your diet. If you need to start taking charge of your professional life, you can begin by writing down some goals and action steps today. If you need to work on a problem relationship, you can begin today with a phone call or letter. If you need to work on your finances, you can begin by working on a budget and make it a priority to give to your church or a charitable ministry. Be a thrill-seeking servant…and begin today.

Notice that when the master returns, the five talent servant says, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; look I have made five more talents!” It’s as if he is shocked at what he was able to achieve with the master’s resources. About two weeks ago, I got an email from someone who was a member of the first church I ever served in. He had found me online and read my blog. In his message he said that I had helped to sow the seeds of Christ’s love in his heart…and I have to say that I was totally unaware of the impact that I had made on his life. I was surprised. I was in awe…at how God had used me to touch his life all these years later. The Lord wants to surprise each of us in the same way.

Now listen to the master’s commendation: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Here’s proof that there is no retirement plan in the kingdom of God. The reward for faithfulness is not an eternal nap, but a never-ending infinitely creative collaboration with God in the advancement of his kingdom on earth and beyond.

One more thing to notice (courtesy of Dale Bruner): the master doesn’t say, “Well done good and flashy servant!” but “Well done good and faithful servant!” He isn’t looking for super stars; but faithful servants. To be faithful has nothing to do with titles, position, quantities or appearances. Believe me when I say that the Lord sees your faithful care of an ailing spouse, child, or elderly parent...and that you will hear Jesus’ “Well done!”

Chapter III: The Biggest Loser: "Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents" (24-28).

After the five and two talent servants go on their way, we’re told that the one talent servant goes away, digs a hole, and buries his talent in the ground. Notice that when he is confronted by the master for his laziness that he immediately begins to make excuses. Like the one talent servant, there are all kinds of clever ways we try to escape responsibility for the talent we’ve been given…. I’m too tired. I’m afraid I might fail. I don’t have the time. I’m not as talented as so and so. Most often, we seem to play the super humility card. “I don’t really have any talent. There’s nothing little ol’ me can give. Sorry.” Phillip Brooks once said that "it’s as arrogant to think you can do nothing as to think you can do everything." Every one of us has something to contribute to the kingdom; that we acknowledge our God-given talents, and use them. Churches today can be so consumer oriented, that we tend to think of it mainly as a place to get our needs met. But the church is also a place where we come to discover and use our God-given gifts to serve others.

Notice that this servants’ major excuse for doing nothing with his master’s money seems to be his fear of the master’s harshness (24)” But is this a reasonable fear? Remember, the master never asked or required them to make him a profit, he simply asked them to do business with it, to take a risk with the gift of a lifetime. God does not require us to earn his approval, he asks us to take his gifts and attempt something for the sake of his kingdom. The major fault of the one talent servant is he didn’t try.

The other day I was at the gym again…and was I discouraged. You see there’s a guy there who won’t look me in the eye…he seems to be annoyed with me and I have no idea why. It began more than four months ago now when I sat down next to him to stretch and he got up and moved to the other side of the room.  Though it could be a racial issue I’ve spoken with other African American friends of mine at the gym, and none of them can make any sense of it. I feel certain now that it is at the root a spiritual or psychological problem. Every time I see him, I pray for him…hoping I can break through this barrier. Nothing. A week ago, I saw him again and thought, “This is going to be the day.” I tried to find ways of approaching him, but again he wouldn’t look at my face. I was discouraged. I wanted to have a testimony. I wanted to see God work…but I felt like a failure. Then, downcast and dejected I walked out past the front desk on my way home…when all at once the manager cut me off. I turned, and he looked at me with his hand outstretched. “When I see you, I want to shake your hand, because you’re a good man.” I have to tell you that I wept when I stepped outside… because I was feeling like a failure. It was like Jesus himself had spoken to me and said… I see what you’re trying to do, and that’s all I ask… keep on trying and trusting me to work through you. That's all that Jesus requires from his servants...

In Jesus' parable, the returning master’s final words are both a sobering and hopeful epilogue: for "to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away...." (29). In other words we either use what we've been given or we'll lose it. In fact it’s more serious than that: the person who buries his talent is really burying himself. Jesus does not speak out of anger here but out of love for us and a desire to save us from messed up priorities, messed up lives, and messed up eternities.
To sum up, "talent" is not the domain of a select few, it's the miraculous potential of every human life; it's the gifts, opportunities, and resources that God has given you and me for the sake of his kingdom. No, the Lord is not asking you or me to be a triple threat, just willing to try. He’s not asking us to be superstars, just willing servants. He’s not asking us to be flashy, just faithful!

Jesus our Master and Savior, we thank you for calling us to be your servants and for entrusting each of us with a generous supply of gifts and abilities, wealth and material possessions, relationships and circles of influence, time and opportunity. Deliver us from that which would keep our talent buried in the ground, and from poor excuses like, “I have nothing to offer. I’m too tired. I’m not as gifted as he is…or she is…or they are. I’m afraid of failure. I just don’t have the time.” Forgive us for failing to encourage others to use and develop their God-given gifts; or for eying their talents with envy in our hearts. Instead, help us to celebrate our unique creation and that of others as we work together for the sake of your kingdom. Fill us with a holy boldness that is willing to risk and fail rather than never try at all; and to know that by your grace and power we may hear…even now, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” Amen!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Story of the Good Samaritan

"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.... [and] wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’" (Luke 10: 24-37).

There’s a story in Luke 9 that is a must read when trying to understand the passage you just read. We’re told that when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem he decided to enter a village of the Samaritans on his way north, even though Jews and Samaritans hated each other, “but they did not receive him” (53). In response to this rejection, James & John give us a good idea of how Jews felt about Samaritans, “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightening down out of the sky and incinerate them?” (That's Eugene Peterson's translation, by the way!) Then, we're told, Jesus turned and rebuked them (Luke 9: 55). Wouldn’t you like to know what Jesus actually said to them? Perhaps Luke didn't want to print it. In any case, they failed to see that his ministry was a ministry without borders....

Perhaps you’ve heard of Doctors Without Borders…an organization that received the Nobel Peace Prize for their pioneering humanitarian aid to victims of natural and man-made disasters around the world. Currently, they’re treating malnourished children in Bihar, India, they’ve vaccinated 400,000 people against meningitis in Niger; they’re treating gunshot victims in S. Sudan, and they’re doing around the clock surgeries in remote areas of Iraq. Well, Jesus' ministry is really the template for all such efforts...though many objected.

Take the lawyer, an expert in the law who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked him what the law of Moses said, and he gives a textbook answer; “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.” “Well said” Jesus replies. “Do this, and you will live.” At this point, if the lawyer had been more honest, he would have admitted his unease and said, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” but instead he tried to justify himself, confident that God could not possibly be asking him to love just any neighbor and especially not sinners, tax collectors, or even Samaritans (as Jesus seemed to do). So, looking for a loophole, he asks Jesus; “And just who IS my neighbor?” By way of answering this final question, Jesus tells a brilliant parable. Let’s look at the scene of the Parable, the characters and Jesus’ challenge.

The scene: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho....” (30). Anyone listening to Jesus tell this story would instantly know the road that Jesus was talking about. It was very dangerous for several reasons. The 17 mile road went from Jerusalem, which is 2300 feet above sea-level, down to Jericho which is near the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at 1300 feet below sea level. So, in less than 20 miles the road drops 3,600 feet! It was a narrow road through desolate and craggy limestone hills – the ideal place for bandits and robbers. No one in his or her right mind traveled that road alone… and everyone tried to get off that road before dark. The very thing Jesus describes in this story is the very thing everyone feared might happen on that road.

One of the keys to understanding this story is the fact that in Luke 9:51 Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem which means that he himself was about to travel, or had already traveled on this road. In other words, Jesus knew this road and is more than qualified to point out the risks, the divine opportunities, the real and imagined dangers, if only we will listen and follow his steps. Now, let's look at each of the characters in Jesus' story in turn....

There was the traveler: "A man was going down the road from Jerusalem" and Jesus tells us that “robbers stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead” (30). This means the man was un-identifiable. There were only two ways a traveler could identify a stranger on the open road. One was by clothing, and the other was by speech. Physical features alone were not enough in this region. Now a Judean was bound to help a member of his own community, but Jesus tells us that this man had no identifying clothing, and he could not talk because he was beaten senseless. If he had been clearly identifiable as a Judean, a fellow countryman would have been bound to help him…but he is not, and so the tension is established. He is simply a man, a human being in need.

Next, Jesus says that “by chance a priest was going down that road” (31) which means he was returning home from Jerusalem, having served in the temple for his 2-week shift. In fact, many priests who served in the Jerusalem temple lived in Jericho, and would frequent this road. How fortunate for this wounded man! Kenneth Bailey reminds us that priests came from the upper crust of society which means he was riding a horse. (K. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 43) No one with any status took 17 mile walks through the desert. This was someone who could really help the wounded man, while someone on foot would be unable to bring him down this long and dangerous road. The point is that he had the means to help him but, shockingly, Jesus says he passed him by on the other side. What could possibly excuse such behavior? Well, the man could have been dead, and if he touched him, he would be ritually unclean for 7 days. His livelihood as a priest would be affected and he would not be able to touch the portion of the ceremonial offerings that are given to the priest to feed his family. On the other hand, the priest may have supposed that this was a gentile “sinner” (he couldn't be sure) – someone he was not bound to help anyway -- according to some rabbinic traditions.

Notice the first word used to describe the Priest’s arrival: it’s the word “CHANCE” (The Greek word is sugkuria which can mean chance or coincidence, a word that occurs only here in the New Testament). By chance," Jesus says, "a priest was going down that road….” I think Jesus winked as he used this word, because biblically speaking, even random chance is under God’s sovereignty. Every day we find ourselves in seemingly “accidental” or “random” situations that are in fact divine opportunities. Prov. 16:33 says, “The lot is cast…but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” Speaking of lots, the most recent winners of the 226 million dollar California lottery, Gilbert & Jacki Cisneros, had some interesting things to say about their “luck.” Gilbert Cisneros, who recently lost his job and bought the ticket said “The first thing we need to do is go to church and pray.” ( ) When asked how they would spend the money he said: “We’ll buy a house [but] we’ll also give back to those who need it, including our church.” For them, winning was not random chance…it was a divine opportunity. When you take a risk and get involved in what God is doing, you help determine what kind of day it is…a meaningless day or a meaningful day…a random day or a kingdom day…an accidental day…or a providential day.

After the Priest, Jesus says that another religious man came down the road, a Levite (32). Now those who have traveled this road say that you can see a considerable distance ahead most of the way. Because it was a dangerous road, you can bet that anyone traveling on it would keep an eye out for the other people who were also on the road (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 46). The point is that this Levite was keeping an eye on that priest. He knew that the priest had passed by. Levites also worked in the temple, but they were of a lower class. Perhaps he thought. “If the priest didn’t get involved, why should I?”

Last month on April 18th, a homeless man in New York City lay face down, unmoving, on the sidewalk outside an apartment building, blood from knife wounds pooling underneath his body. An AP article says that “One person passed by in the early morning. Then another, and another. Video footage from a surveillance camera shows at least seven people going by, some turning their heads to look, others stopping to gawk. One even lifted the homeless man's body, exposing what appeared to be blood on the sidewalk underneath him, before walking away. It wasn't until after the 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant had been lying there for nearly an hour that emergency workers arrived, and by then, it was too late. Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax had died.” Apparently a couple was having a fight that became violent. When this homeless man tried to be a good Samaritan and protect the woman, her boyfriend turned and stabbed him several times. “What’s wrong with humanity?” a woman visiting her grandmother at a nearby apartment asked. A teacher at a school across the street said this: "I think people are just afraid to step in; they don't want to get involved” (

Notice that the first word used to describe the Levite is “LIKEWISE (homoios) Likewise, a Levite when he came…passed by on the other side.” The sin of the Levite is that he was a “likewiser.” He likewised himself into behavior that couldn’t have been more unwise. He was following the crowd and failing to think for himself. Nothing moves us in the wrong direction faster than the desperate need to be accepted by the “right” people, the popular and the supposedly powerful. The need for community, or spiritual power, status or acceptance can become an idol. We have to beware of the “us four and no more” attitude that quick freezes our hearts, closes us off from the outside world, and creates a private club which is ours to enjoy at the expense of the lost and hurting people outside.

Now Jesus catches his listeners off guard. For he says that a Samaritan happened to pass by, and when seeing the man “was moved with pity, went to him, bandaged his wounds…put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him” (33-35). “Good Samaritan” is such a stock phrase now for one who helps others; it’s hard to appreciate what a shock this detail would have been to his Judean listeners. Listen, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. They were considered heretics, and half-breeds who intermarried with foreigners. They were publicly cursed in the synagogues. Jews hated Samaritans, and vice versa. Given all this, the actions of the Samaritan are amazing!

Here was a Samaritan, traveling through Judea, who helps a man that was probably his enemy. Here was a man who took the time to bandage a stranger’s wounds, and put him on his own animal, despite the fact that taking the time to do so could mean risking a similar fate by waiting robbers. Here was a man who takes his enemy to an inn and personally cares for him…not leaving him on the doorstep of someone’s house and quietly leaving, but staying over night with him in hostile territory – probably Jericho. Here was a man who promises to return to repay whatever more the innkeeper spends to care for him. He knew the wounded man had no money, and if he left without paying, the he would be arrested for the debt. Yes, innkeepers had that kind of reputation. If the Samaritan did not return, this man would have no way of getting out of town! The key phrase in the description of the Samaritan is “HE WENT.” With his mind he saw the seriousness of the situation. With his emotions he felt pity. And with his will he went to him, taking action. Despite the cost in time, effort, money and personal dangerhe went, demonstrating a love without borders.

Jesus ends his story with a challenging question: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers” (36)? Not the one who missed his chance, his divine opportunity. Not the Likewiser, who followed the crowd. No, the lawyer answers, “It was the one who went, who showed him mercy!” Notice that he can’t even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan!” Jesus says (literally) “Go…and you do likewise.” His point is clear: Those who live in the reality of God’s Kingdom Without Borders are not worrying about who their neighbors are…busily compiling a list in advance of those they can thankfully ignore. No, the question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To WHOM will I become a neighbor today?”

“Go and you do likewise” Jesus says. You may be thinking right about now: “I’m not sure that I can go and do likewise.” I believe this is exactly what he wanted the Lawyer to be asking himself. Jesus exposed his spiritual pride, and ours. That lady in New York asked an important question: “What’s wrong with humanity?” When The Times invited several eminent authors to answer the same question years ago, Chesterton wrote back: "Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton" I AM. That is, I am a sinner in need of rescue. Remember, Jesus has traveled this road and only he perfectly embodies the compassion and sacrifice of the Good Samaritan. It’s his love and compassion working in us that will enable us to do what he does.
His love within us will empower us to love the broken and hurting people of this world without borders, limits, conditions or loopholes.

Father give me eyes to see the wounded all around me, but help me to be blind to the prejudices and hatreds that would keep me from moving toward others with compassion in your name. Give me the desire to approach those who are in need. Give me the desire to love and care for those who are hurting. Oh, Lord, may others see the mark of the Master’s mercy in my life. May they see the incredible love of Jesus who loved his enemies and was willing even to die for them. Finally may those whom I touch in your name, seek to know You, love you and serve you as Lord and Savior… to the glory and praise of our gracious God we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Great Dinner Party

If you think that parties are the domain of the fraternity house, the Friday afternoon office, or the tailgate -- but definitely not the circle of Jesus' followers, think again....because Jesus teaches us in Luke 14: 1-24 that the invitation to life in God’s kingdom is more like the invitation to a great dinner party; a party to which all are invited, but sadly one that not all will choose to attend.

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely....12 He said also 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 neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ 15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16 Then Jesus* said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” 19 Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20 Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” 22 And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23 Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you,* none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

I can’t say I’ve ever been to an “A-list” party but I did attend a benefit for Habitat for Humanity at the Beverly Hills Hotel once. It was a nice dinner, with a lot of very rich and famous people (none of them at my table). As I was retrieving my car after the event I found myself standing out on the curb next to Tommy Lee Jones and his wife (an actor who was paid 20 million for just one of his pictures). As the valet brought up his car, the attendant got out and said, “Jones!” He and his wife immediately walked out and got into their car. OK, I admit it. I had this momentary fantasy of someone driving up in a red Ferrari and shouting "Craig!" -- but it was shattered by the sound of the attendant getting out of my car and saying, “Blue minivan!” 

Now the scene where Jesus tells this Story is an actual dinner party that he had been invited to. Luke tells us that the host was a “leader (archon) of the Pharisees” (1). The point Luke is trying to make is that Jesus had been invited to an elite A-listers event. He was being ushered into the inner circle, as he dined with some of Israel’s prominent religious leaders. Anyone other than Jesus might have been thrilled simply to be invited but Jesus does something shocking…he informs the host that his guest list should have included the poor, crippled, the lame & blind (12-14). Why did he do this?

Perhaps its because he knew that they objected to the way he spent time with prostitutes and tax collectors and Roman soldiers…touching lepers, restoring sight to the blind, apparently more interested in the poor than the religious elite. These are the ones you should have also invited. Imagine the dead silence. A pious fellow tries to change the subject, not realizing it was the subject: “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God (15)!” So Jesus tells a story about what it really means to be invited to the blessed life in God’s kingdom….

First, the invitation to life in God’s kingdom is like an invitation to a “great dinner,” a holy party (Luke 14: 15-16). The pious dinner guest said that those who eat bread in the kingdom of God will be blessed…and Jesus agrees with that basic idea: that life in the kingdom of God both now and far all eternity is a blessing, something to rejoice in. Once upon a time, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many” Jesus begins. To be part of God’s kingdom is like a great dinner…a celebration, a party.

Now many of the religious professionals of Jesus’ day didn’t get this. Jesus was constantly criticized because he ate and drank with tax gatherers and sinners. Jesus and his band just weren’t serious enough…to their minds. In Luke 5: 33-35, Jesus says “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them.” Friends, the bridegroom is with us. He has died and risen from the grave, and he is with us now. We have reason to celebrate. I think a lot of us have given in to the idea that passionate spirituality and passionate celebration don’t mix. But our Lord tells us that to be around him is not meant to be a dull, joyless experience.

In Deuteronomy 14, Israel is instructed by God to set apart a tithe each year… for peak times of celebration. They were to gather up a tithe of their grain, wine, flocks etc. and go to Jerusalem and have a party; and if they lived too far from Jerusalem, they were to convert these into cash, bring them to Jerusalem and “spend the money for whatever they wished… whatever they desired. And…eat there in the presence of the Lord…you and your household rejoicing together” (14: 26). In other words, they were to come to Jerusalem live above their normal standard of living; they were to splurge. They were not to stay in the Motel 6, they were to stay at the Hyatt (to borrow an illustration from Arthur Burke). They weren’t to eat hamburgers and fries, but Filet Mignon, and rejoice together with God’s people.

And so in anticipation of the Great Dinner Party that God’s people will enjoy with him one day, we need to practice the party now! It’s a witness to the world when God’s people make a habit of celebration. We need to celebrate with large groups of our Lord's followers at a conference or family camp or fellowship dinner... We need to celebrate in smaller groups, vacation with family or friends, or spend time on a couple’s retreat. We need to celebrate privately, on a personal retreat where we can pray and listen to God’s voice. Hear me again: If God’s kingdom is going to be like a great dinner party, we’ve got to start practicing the party now….

Secondly, the invitation to life in God’s kingdom is a free invitation to all (Isaiah 25: 1-7; Luke 14: 16-17, 21-23). As Jesus continues his story, he says that the host of this great dinner party “invited many” (16). Now it was common in Middle Eastern culture to announce the day of a banquet and send out invitations long beforehand. The host planned the amount of food to prepare, based on the number of people who accepted his invitation. Then, on the day of the feast, servants were sent out to summon the already invited guests, telling them “all is now ready”. That is, the food was cooked and prepared, and was now ready to be eaten. But in Jesus’ story, something extraordinary happens next. All (18) the guests begin to make excuses for why they could not come. To accept an invitation beforehand and then back out at the last minute after everything was prepared was considered a huge insult. Things are not that different today.

Now the incredible thing about this host, is that he refuses to let these rude guests ruin his party. He tells his servant to go out at once into the city streets and alleys. “Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here (Eugene Peterson, The Message).” After the servant does this, and his banquet room is still not filled, he commands his servant to“Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled" (23)!

Hear the words of Isaiah 25.6-8, 35:5, 61:1-2: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples feasts of rich food… And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud [of death] that is cast over all peoples….the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped….[and] the Lord has appointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Sound familiar? Isaiah is describing the invitation of Jesus: that all who will may come.

Yesterday my girls and I found ourselves in downtown Los Angeles after returning from a visit to my mom and dad's home in Pasadena. Our intention was to head for Olvera Street for lunch but then we saw thousands and thousands gathering along the streets to speak out on immigration. As anyone knows who lives in California, arguments over immigration have reached a fever pitch. Millions come here for work, for a fresh start, and a second chance – some come legally and others come illegally. At this point I want to make a spiritual point from Scripture -- not a political one. Few people have truly experienced what it is like to be a refuge from another country, an "alien" or “foreigner” but the truth is that before God we are all aliens who have been welcomed to God’s party. “Remember," says Paul, "that you who were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship and foreigners to the covenants of the promise… who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2: 12-13). Imagine if we could all live as foreigners and strangers in this world who have been brought near to God, loved, accepted and invited to attend God's kingdom party...

Sadly, we don't live in such a world yet...because the invitation to life in God’s kingdom can be refused, but not without regrets (Luke 14: 18-24). As wonderful as God’s gracious invitation is, the fact is that not everyone wants to accept it. That's the world we live in. In Jesus’ parable, he describes some of the lame excuses that folks use, in order to avoid being there!

Excuse #1 (“I bought a piece of land and I must go out and see it.”) Kenneth Bailey, an expert on Middle Eastern culture shows in his book, Poets & Peasants, that this is a bold faced lie. No one buys a field in the Middle East without knowing every sq. foot of it like the palm of his hand. It would be like saying “I just bought a new house over the phone, and I must go and see it now & the neighborhood.”

Excuse #2 (“I bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out.”) Again, Bailey suggests that is just as absurd as saying, “I just bought five used cars over the internet, and I’m on my way to the garage to find out if any of them will start.”

Excuse #3 (“I just got married, and therefore I cannot come.”) This is Middle Eastern jargon for saying, “I can’t come because I’m busy with my woman.” Bailey contends that this would be heard as a crude excuse; that no one would use newlywed status to back out of such an invitation.

Jesus is teaching us some important things about God’s kingdom here. First, there is no good excuse for opting out of God’s kingdom: it may be a new hobby, a new relationship, a busy work schedule that keeps us from church, or a habit we don’t want to give up, but none of these are worth the sacrifice of our relationship with the Lord and his people. Secondly, the Lord’s invitation has a time limit. “None of those who were invited [and refused] will taste my dinner” (24) Jesus says. If we think we can just crash the party at the last minute, we’re wrong. The door is open to all, but the door will not remain open forever. God will allow us to refuse his invitation.

In his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party, Tony Campolo tells a story about John Carlson, a young Lutheran minister in Minnesota, who gained attention when he came up with the idea of throwing a special party the night of the senior prom for those who didn’t have dates. Get this. He called it the Reject Prom; and it turned out to be such a great party that before long even some of the students who had dates to the prom chose the Reject Prom instead. Now the Reject Prom sounds a lot like the great dinner party in Jesus’ story. It’s a party that everyone who will, may come to. It’s the gift of saving grace. It’s forgiveness for the sinner, strength for the weak, hope for the hopeless, healing for the wounded, and life for the dying. It’s the only party that God is throwing.

Jesus my Lord and Messiah, forgive me for thinking that to follow you could ever be a dull or joyless affair. I see now that the only true joy, the only real party in town is found among those who have come to admit their sins and failures, experienced your gracious love, and begun to walk in freedom as your disciples. I ask your forgiveness for busying myself with distractions, making excuses and keeping you at a distance with my so-called hobbies, responsibilities and personal obsessions. Coming now to this table, I gratefully accept the invitation to joyous fellowship in God’s kingdom as your forever friend and follower. Now may the greatness of your gift be made known through my words and in my life…that all who will may come, and that your house may be filled, to the glory of God. Amen.