A Lot to Learn

10 Do not slander a servant to his master,
    lest he curse you, and you be held guilty.

11 There are those who curse their fathers
    and do not bless their mothers.
12 There are those who are clean in their own eyes
    but are not washed of their filth.
13 There are those—how lofty are their eyes,
    how high their eyelids lift!
14 There are those whose teeth are swords,
    whose fangs are knives,
to devour the poor from off the earth,
    the needy from among mankind.

15 The leech has two daughters:
    Give and Give.
Three things are never satisfied;
    four never say, “Enough”:
16 Sheol, the barren womb,
    the land never satisfied with water,
    and the fire that never says, “Enough.”

17 The eye that mocks a father
    and scorns to obey a mother
will be picked out by the ravens of the valley
    and eaten by the vultures.

18 Three things are too wonderful for me;
    four I do not understand:
19 the way of an eagle in the sky,
    the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
    and the way of a man with a virgin.

20 This is the way of an adulteress:
    she eats and wipes her mouth
    and says, “I have done no wrong.”

21 Under three things the earth trembles;
    under four it cannot bear up:
22 a slave when he becomes king,
    and a fool when he is filled with food;
23 an unloved woman when she gets a husband,
    and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress.

24 Four things on earth are small,
    but they are exceedingly wise:
25 the ants are a people not strong,
    yet they provide their food in the summer;
26 the rock badgers are a people not mighty,
    yet they make their homes in the cliffs;
27 the locusts have no king,
    yet all of them march in rank;
28 the lizard you can take in your hands,
    yet it is in kings’ palaces.

29 Three things are stately in their tread;
    four are stately in their stride:
30 the lion, which is mightiest among beasts
    and does not turn back before any;
31 the strutting rooster, the he-goat,
    and a king whose army is with him.

32 If you have been foolish, exalting yourself,
    or if you have been devising evil,
    put your hand on your mouth.
33 For pressing milk produces curds,
    pressing the nose produces blood,
    and pressing anger produces strife. – Proverbs 30:10-33 ESV

In this next section, Agur shifts the focus of his proverbs from his relationship with God to the need for wisdom when it comes to human interactions. Agur knew that a strong bond with God was essential to having healthy relationships with all those around him. He stresses the need for integrity and honesty. There is no place for slander or false accusations among the godly. Even if someone spread malicious rumors concerning a slave, their lies would only come back and expose them.

And worse yet is the sin of hypocrisy or disingenuous. He gives the example of someone who outwardly curses his father and displays ingratitude toward his mother, all the while considering himself pure in his own eyes. This individual ignores his own inner impurity and, filled with a false sense of pride, looks down on others in disdain. These kinds of people “have teeth like swords and fangs like knives. They devour the poor from the earth and the needy from among humanity” (Proverbs 30:14 NLT). In other words, they have no regard for the less fortunate. Viewing themselves as superior, they see nothing wrong with despising and even taking advantage of the poor and needy. Because they have no understanding of God and His ways, they develop a false view of their own self-importance and treat all others with disdain.

Agur describes their appetite for self-gratification as insatiable, comparing them to a blood-sucking leech.

The leech has two daughters:
    Give and Give. – Proverbs 30:15 ESV

The inference behind this verse is that greed is contagious. In a sense, it is hereditary and is passed down from one generation to another. The leech has two daughters who share the same name: Give. Their desire has become their identity. And Agur goes on to describe the sad reality of a life marked by avarice and gluttony. He uses four familiar illustrations to accentuate the futility of a life marked by dissatisfaction and greed.

There are three things that are never satisfied—
    no, four that never say, “Enough!”:
the grave,
    the barren womb,
    the thirsty desert,
    the blazing fire. – Proverbs 30:15-16 NLT

Sheol or the grave is never satisfied. Its gates never close and there is always room for more. A barren womb never experiences the one thing it most desires: A child. So, it remains unfulfilled and dissatisfied with life. A parched and barren desert will never receive enough rain to transform it into a garden. And a blazing fire will continue to consume wood as long as someone feeds its flames.

With these two verses, Agur introduces an interesting literary device. Five different times, he introduces one of his proverbs with some variation of the phrase:, “There are three things . . . even four.” It seems that Agur is stressing that these lists are not to be considered complete or exhaustive. He could add an endless number of entries to each one. It is almost as if he is inviting the reader to come up with their own illustrations so that they might better understand the message he is attempting to convey.

Agur seems to be stressing that there is a created order to God’s world. There is a way in which things can and should work so that we experience peace and not chaos, calm instead of confusion. And when God’s way is either ignored or rejected, the result can be catastrophic and earth-shattering. It may seem simple and innocent enough, but when we fail to do life according to God’s terms, it never turns out well. When we depart from God’s natural order or path of wisdom, it creates a hole in the fabric of the universe.

in this Proverb, Agur uses this series of “three-four” sayings to act as warnings against life lived outside of God’s prescribed plan. At first glance, they appear somewhat humorous, but upon closer examination, it becomes evident that these sayings are intended to be sobering warnings.

In verses 21-23 we find a list of four seemingly innocent and innocuous individuals who find themselves in improved situations.

There are three things that make the earth tremble—
    no, four it cannot endure:
a slave who becomes a king,
    an overbearing fool who prospers,
    a bitter woman who finally gets a husband,
    a servant girl who supplants her mistress. – Proverbs 30:21-23 NLT

You have a slave who winds up a king, a fool who has an endless supply of food, an unloved woman who lands herself a husband, and a servant girl who ends up taking the place of her master’s wife. Each of these individuals experiences an unexpected and elevated change in their social status that is unaccompanied by a change in their character.

Agur seems to intend them to represent events that are not in keeping with God’s natural order of things. A slave is not meant to become king. If he does, he will tend to take advantage of his newfound power and authority and lord it over those under his control. A fool who refuses to work and is inherently lazy, but who finds himself with an endless supply of food, will gorge himself on it and never learn that blessing is the result of diligence. A bitter, unloved, and unhappy woman who suddenly finds herself a husband will not automatically become satisfied and content. She will continue to struggle with the same issues, driving her husband insane and, ultimately, away. A servant girl who becomes the focus of her master’s affections, even taking the place of his wife, will fail to honor the one for whom she works.

Each of these people is pictured as getting what they long for: power, prosperity, affection, and position, yet they remain dissatisfied and discontent. They have attained their new status unfairly or even unnaturally. Their circumstances have changed apart from God’s natural order of things. It is like a poor couple winning the lottery and suddenly finding themselves rich beyond their wildest imaginations. The likelihood of their situation turning out well is less than ideal. It is likely that their newfound wealth will result in unwanted, but NOT unexpected consequences.

It’s interesting that these examples of unhealthy life changes are stuck between Agur’s statements regarding the blood-sucking leech who is never satisfied and a series of four other creatures that reflect diligence, hard work, and a reliance upon God’s creative order for all things. Get-rich-quick-schemes are warned against all throughout the Proverbs. Laziness is villainized. The expectation of reward without work is discouraged. Achieving the apparent blessings of God without living according to the expectations of God can be dangerous and is to be avoided at all costs. We must do things God’s way, with no shortcuts and no compromises. It has to be His way if you want to experience His blessing.

Even a look at nature reveals that God has created an order to His creation. Within the animal kingdom, there is a clear display of the divine mandate for hard work, organization, diligence, and cooperation. The humble and seemingly insignificant ant provides a compelling illustration of how God has blessed the smallest of His creation with life-sustaining attributes.

There is no place for pride and arrogance within the heart of a man. While men and women may represent the apex of God’s creative order, they are still nothing more than the byproduct of God’s grace. He has made them what they are. He has given them life and blessed them with the capacity to know and obey Him. Unlike insects or animals, humanity has been made in the likeness of God. We have been given the right and privilege of knowing Him. We can commune with the Almighty and enjoy the benefits of His fathomless wisdom. Yet, far too often, we view ourselves with an inordinate and unjustified sense of self-worth, failing to recognize that, without God, we are nothing. Apart from Him, our lives lack meaning and a sense of purpose. And without His wisdom, we become no better off than the rest of the animal kingdom.

So, Agur gives us a parting word of advice.

If you have been a fool by being proud or plotting evil,
    cover your mouth in shame. – Proverbs 30:32 NLT

May we listen to the words of Agur and respond like Job with humility and repentance.

“I know that you can do anything,
    and no one can stop you.
You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’
    It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about,
    things far too wonderful for me.
You said, ‘Listen and I will speak!
    I have some questions for you,
    and you must answer them.’
I had only heard about you before,
    but now I have seen you with my own eyes.
I take back everything I said,
    and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” – Job 42:2-6 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Better By Far

16 How much better to get wisdom than gold!
    To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver.
17 The highway of the upright turns aside from evil;
    whoever guards his way preserves his life.
18 Pride goes before destruction,
    and a haughty spirit before a fall.
19 It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor
    than to divide the spoil with the proud.
20 Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good,
    and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord.
21 The wise of heart is called discerning,
    and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.
22 Good sense is a fountain of life to him who has it,
    but the instruction of fools is folly.
23 The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
    and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
24 Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
    sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
25 There is a way that seems right to a man,
    but its end is the way to death.
26 A worker’s appetite works for him;
    his mouth urges him on.
27 A worthless man plots evil,
    and his speech[d] is like a scorching fire.
28 A dishonest man spreads strife,
    and a whisperer separates close friends.
29 A man of violence entices his neighbor
    and leads him in a way that is not good.
30 Whoever winks his eyes plans dishonest things;
    he who purses his lips brings evil to pass.
31 Gray hair is a crown of glory;
    it is gained in a righteous life.
32 Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
    and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.
33 The lot is cast into the lap,
    but its every decision is from the Lord..
– Proverbs 16:16-33 ESV

According to Solomon, the way of wisdom is simply better. While it can’t offer the guarantee of a trouble-free life, it can provide a far better outcome than the alternative. Just consider how many times Solomon pronounces the life of godliness as better than any other available option.

Better to have little, with godliness,
    than to be rich and dishonest.
Proverbs 16:8 NLT

How much better to get wisdom than gold,
    and good judgment than silver! – Proverbs 16:16 NLT

Better to live humbly with the poor
    than to share plunder with the proud. – Proverbs 16:19 NLT

Better to be patient than powerful;
    better to have self-control than to conquer a city. – Proverbs 19:32 NLT

There are simply some things that are better than others. But who gets to choose? According to Solomon, God determines the value of one thing over another. He establishes the relative worth of one action as opposed to another. As is so often the case in the book of Proverbs, in this chapter, Solomon uses comparison to get his point across.

He contrasts poverty with wealth and deems it better to have little than much. But he inserts a qualifier because, by themselves, these two conditions are amoral. They are neither wrong nor right, just or unjust. The qualifier has to do with the spiritual condition of the individual in each case. It is better to have little AND be godly than to be rich AND dishonest. The presence of godliness in the life of the impoverished person automatically improves the condition of his life. Logic would suggest that an abundance of wealth can help to improve life, but Solomon states that wealth gained by dishonest means adds little to the life of its possessor. It brings no satisfaction. It can assuage the appetite, but not the soul.

Solomon goes on to say that it is actually better to get wisdom than gold, and good judgment than silver (Proverbs 16:16). As has been made perfectly clear throughout the book of Proverbs, wisdom and good judgment are only available from God and require determination and dedication to acquire. We must search for them like we would hidden treasure. They must be a priority and a passion in our lives. Their value is far beyond that of riches of any kind. To put it simply: They’re just better.

And as if to further drive home his original point, Solomon tells us it is “better to live humbly with the poor than to share plunder with the proud” (Proverbs 16:19 NLT). Now while the qualifier is less clear, his comparison of these two types of lifestyles goes beyond mere poverty and wealth. It has much more to do with the condition of the heart. One is humble while the other is proud. Our friendships should be based more on the condition of the heart than the quality of our lifestyle.  We should be more concerned about the spiritual state of the ones with whom we associate than their financial health.

Far too often, the prominent and financially well-off have earned their wealth through less-than-righteous means. They may have taken advantage of the less fortunate to line their own pockets. They could have cut corners or broken laws to obtain their ill-gotten gains. Solomon even describes their wealth as plunder, as if has been stolen. And he describes their attitude about it all as prideful and arrogant. Somehow, they have conned the system and improved their financial position at the expense of others, and they’re proud of their accomplishments. And Solomon suggests that a life of destitution lived among the righteous poor would be far better in the end.

Solomon provides two final comparisons wrapped up in one verse.

Better to be patient than powerful;
    better to have self-control than to conquer a city. – Proverbs 16:32 NLT

Once again, the emphasis is on character, specifically patience and self-control. While God is not mentioned in these verses, it is clearly He who establishes the basis of these comparative clauses. God values patience over power, and self-control over what appears to be success.

Man tends to judge by externals, while God looks at the heart. He examines the motives. We see that clearly in verse 2:

People may be pure in their own eyes,
    but the Lord examines their motives.

God values godliness, justice, wisdom, good judgment, humility, patience, and self-control because each of these things is given by Him. They are not man-made or self-manufactured. They are evidence of a life lived in dependence upon God. And therefore, they are better. The world puts little to no value on any of them. Instead, the world determines the value of anything based solely on results. It bases value on externals and determines worth based on effectiveness. But God judges by different criteria and, at the end of the day, He alone determines which is better and best.

Those who choose to leave God out of their lives will only supplant Him with a god or gods of their own choosing. If they refuse to worship and fear Him, they will only end up bowing down to something or someone else. In many cases, they become prideful, thinking of themselves as the masters of their own fate and the captains of their own souls. But Solomon provides a sobering warning to these self-adulating, narcissistic fools:

Pride goes before destruction,
    and haughtiness before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 NLT

The godless are really just God-less. They lack a healthy reverence for God Almighty and so they end up replacing Him with gods of their own making. In their pride and arrogance, they have chosen to pursue a path that leads away from God and far from the wisdom only He can provide. And while that path may lead to wealth, popularity, and power, it ultimately ends in death.

There is a path before each person that seems right,
    but it ends in death. – Proverbs 16:25 NLT

And as they make their way, they leave a wake of destruction in their path.

Scoundrels create trouble;
    their words are a destructive blaze.

A troublemaker plants seeds of strife;
    gossip separates the best of friends.

Violent people mislead their companions,
    leading them down a harmful path.

With narrowed eyes, people plot evil;
   with a smirk, they plan their mischief. – Proverbs 16:30 NLT

They have determined to take their own path and to live their lives according to their own terms. Having left God out of the picture, they end up taking the credit for their own success. But little do they know that their fate is far from self-determined. Their autonomy is a sham. Their aspirations for self-rule and sovereignty are a pipe dream. Because, at the end of the day, it is still God who determines their fate.

The lot is cast into the lap,
    but its every decision is from the Lord. – Proverbs 16:33 ESV

Life is not about chance. Our future is not based on fate, karma, or some form of kismet. Human beings tend to think that life is a game of chance where we roll the dice and take whatever comes our way. Some of us are fortunate enough to roll a lucky seven while others end up with snake eyes or craps. But Solomon reminds us, “We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines how they fall” (Proverbs 16:33 NLT).

The wise recognize the hand of God in all of life. They understand that He alone is sovereign. They know that He determines the affairs of men and He dictates the rules by which we conduct our lives on this planet. And Solomon points out that those who seek to live according to God’s terms will be blessed.

Those who listen to instruction will prosper;
    those who trust the Lord will be joyful. – Proverbs 16:22 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Path to Paradise

18 A hot-tempered man stirs up strife,
    but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.
19 The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns,
    but the path of the upright is a level highway.
20 A wise son makes a glad father,
    but a foolish man despises his mother.
21 Folly is a joy to him who lacks sense,
    but a man of understanding walks straight ahead.
22 Without counsel plans fail,
    but with many advisers they succeed.
23 To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
    and a word in season, how good it is!
24 The path of life leads upward for the prudent,
    that he may turn away from Sheol beneath.
25 The Lord tears down the house of the proud
    but maintains the widow’s boundaries.
26 The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord,
    but gracious words are pure.
27 Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household,
    but he who hates bribes will live.
28 The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer,
    but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
29 The Lord is far from the wicked,
    but he hears the prayer of the righteous.
30 The light of the eyes rejoices the heart,
    and good news refreshes the bones.
31 The ear that listens to life-giving reproof
    will dwell among the wise.
32 Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
    but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.
33 The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom,
    and humility comes before honor. 
– Proverbs 15:18-33 ESV

Uncontrolled anger, relational damage, self-inflicted trouble, parental disappointment, greed, godless words, unrighteous behavior, and abandonment by God. These are the sad and inevitable characteristics of the one who chooses to take the path of the fool. It looks so appealing and yet, according to Solomon, it doesn’t end well. The fool is like a car careening down a steep street without a driver. It makes plenty of headway but leaves a wake of destruction in its path as it does so. In the same way, fools tend to wreak havoc wherever they go. Their lifestyle is not only self-destructive, but it ends up doing inestimable damage to so many others along the way. And they don’t seem to care.

foolish children despise their mother. – Proverbs 15:20 NLT

They don’t literally despise their mothers. But their self-destructive actions end up bringing sorrow and hurt to those who love and care about them. A mother who is forced to stand back and watch as her foolish son self-implodes can’t help but feel hurt and saddened by the experience. This is a regular theme in Proverbs.

…a foolish child brings grief to a mother. – Proverbs 10:1 NLT

It is painful to be the parent of a fool – Proverbs 17:21 NLT

Foolish children bring grief to their father
and bitterness to the one who gave them birth. – Proverbs 17:25 NLT

The fool ends up developing so many disabling and self-destructive habits that the path of his life becomes virtually impassable and, getting to where he longs to be, becomes almost impossible.

The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns – Proverbs 15:19 ESV

Because the fool lacks godly wisdom, he ends up trying to navigate life without a map. He has no instructions and, therefore, no way of knowing which path to take. So, he chooses his own destination and ends up determining his own fate.

Fools think their own way is right… – Proverbs 12:15 NLT

There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death. – Proverbs 16:25 NLT

A fool is incapable of seeing that his path of choice leads to a dead end. From his perspective, he’s making progress but he doesn’t realize until it’s too late that his final destination is unexpectedly unpleasant.

In contrast, the wise individual finds their life’s journey to be far more pleasant and free from roadblocks.

…the path of the upright is an open highway. – Proverbs 15:19 NLT

Solomon is not suggesting that the wise are guaranteed the promise of a trouble-free life. Walking with God is not always easy. The road of righteousness can also have its potholes and pitfalls. But its final destination is certain. It ultimately leads to a pleasant place that God has prepared for all those who faithfully follow His divine directions. Yet, Solomon points out that a fool lacks the discernment to realize his path is a dead end.

Foolishness brings joy to those with no sense… – Proverbs 15: 21 NLT

They say, “Ignorance is bliss.” There is a certain degree of truth to that maxim. The saying, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” is partially true. Not knowing what lies at the end of the path can be a good thing – for a while. The journey itself can actually be quite enjoyable but eventually, reality will set in. But along the way, the fool can have the time of their life. It can feel like a non-stop party as they make unscheduled stops and take unexpected detours to see all the tempting sights. But Solomon reminds us that “a sensible person stays on the right path” (Proverbs 15:21 NLT).

The fool, never realizing that they’re lost and headed in the wrong direction, refuses to ask for directions.

Plans go wrong for lack of advice… – Proverbs 15:22 NLT

They’re too arrogant and self-assured to seek counsel. Even if they realize they’re lost, they can’t bring themselves to admit it. So, they stubbornly stay on the path they’ve chosen for themselves, refusing the input of others and further ensuring their eventual failure. And Solomon provides a not-so-subtle hint as to the far-from-pleasant outcome of their ways.

The path of life leads upward for the wise;
    they leave the grave behind. – Proverbs 15:24 NLT

The choice is either life or death. It’s as simple as that. And what determines one from the other is wisdom. And wisdom begins with a healthy reverence for God and His ways. What the fool fails to realize, to his own detriment, is that He has God as his enemy.

The Lord tears down the house of the proud… – Proverbs 15:25 NLT

The Lord detests evil plans… – Proverbs 15:26 NLT

The Lord is far from the wicked – Proverbs 15:29 NLT

This is serious business. Foolishness is not some kind of alternative lifestyle that is harmless and free from ramifications. Solomon is not describing some innocent free spirit who is simply trying to live life on his own terms. He is revealing the ultimate outcome of all those who refuse to honor God and live according to His righteous commands. The fool is a synonym for the godless. Solomon’s own father, King David, described the fool this way:

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good! – Psalm 14:1 NLT

Fools are actually arrogant and, ultimately, atheistic in their outlook. They live as if God doesn’t even exist. They know His commands but refuse to obey them because they have determined He has no power over them. The psalmist put it this way:

The wicked are too proud to seek God.
    They seem to think that God is dead.
Yet they succeed in everything they do.
    They do not see your punishment awaiting them.
    They sneer at all their enemies.
They think, “Nothing bad will ever happen to us!
    We will be free of trouble forever!” – Psalm 10:4-6 NLT

They live in a state of perpetual denial, dismissing the reality of God and denying the deadly fate that lies at the end of their chosen path.

The wicked think, “God isn’t watching us!
    He has closed his eyes and won’t even see what we do!” – Proverbs 10:11 NLT

But oh, how wrong they are. God does see, and He does repay the wicked for their ways. He does mete out justice upon the fool. Those who spurn the Lord may appear to enjoy a modicum of success but their days of fun and games are numbered. One day, they will have to answer for their choices. And Solomon warns that all those who reject the loving discipline of God will come to regret their decision.

If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself;
    but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding. – Proverbs 15:32 NLT

According to Solomon, “Fear of the Lord teaches wisdom…” (Proverbs 15:33 NLT), and wisdom results in a lifestyle that is life-preserving, joy-filled, other-oriented, and God-honoring. The fool is perfectly free to choose his own path, but he cannot determine his own destiny. That is up to God. But the one who chooses the way of the wise finds himself on the highway that leads to godliness and holiness.

The path of life leads upward for the wise – Proverbs 15:24 NLT

That life will have its ups and downs and peaks and valleys, but the trajectory is always upwards. It leads to a final destination that features joy, fulfillment, satisfaction, contentment, peace, and an unbroken, never-ending relationship with the God of the universe. And that’s a path only a fool would avoid.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Mysterious Ways of God

5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” Genesis 16:5-10 ESV

The story of Sarai’s decision to give her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram as a surrogate birth mother for their future inheritance, brings an old hymn comes to mind. The events surrounding her clever solution to her own barrenness problem seem to be headed in a decidedly troubled direction. And yet, as this timeless song so aptly states, God was in full control of the entire situation.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm

Deep in unsearchable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will

William Cowper, “God Moves In a Mysterious Way” – 1774

Every detail recorded in this story seems to be taking place outside of God’s preordained will. Nowhere in the narrative does Sarai receive orders from God instructing her to implement His “Plan B.” And yet, as William Cowper so elegantly put it, God was treasuring up His bright designs and working His sovereign will.

From Sarai’s perspective, things had gone terribly wrong. Her bright idea had produced some decidedly dark outcomes. What should have been a joyous occasion, had turned into a toxic scene filled with jealousy, envy, and deep resentment. Sarai had given Hagar to Abram so that she might bear the offspring he was so desperately seeking. But when her wish came true and Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child, she began to have a case of buyer’s remorse. Sarai’s lowly maidservant suddenly found herself in the envious position of serving as the future mother of Abram’s long-awaited son. She considered herself to be the “chosen” vessel through whom God would fulfill His promise to produce from Abram a great nation.  And she flaunted her newfound celebrity status in Sarai’s despondent face.

Sarai suddenly found herself in a dramatically diminished role. She was still Abram’s wife, but she was damaged goods – unable to conceive and, therefore, of little value. But rather than blame herself for this unpleasant predicament, she lashed out at Abram.

“This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The Lord will show who’s wrong—you or me!” – Genesis 16:5 NLT

She admits that the idea had been hers, but she demanded that Abram take responsibility for the unfortunate outcome. After all, he was the one who got Hagar pregnant. But Sarai seems to be suffering from a severe case of selective memory. It was she who gave Abram both the idea and the permission to impregnate Hagar.

“Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT

Her plan had worked to perfection. Abram had faithfully (and, most likely, with great eagerness) followed her instructions and accomplished his assignment. He had successfully gotten Hagar pregnant but, in doing so, he had inadvertently made Sarai mad.

Sarai portrayed herself as the innocent victim, even suggesting that God would not hold her culpable or blameworthy for this disastrous situation. Fueling her unbridled anger and resentment was the arrogant attitude exhibited by Hagar. Moses identifies this newly elevated servant an Egyptian. It is most likely that Hagar had become a part of Abram’s family when, 10 years earlier, he had taken his family to Egypt to escape the famine in the land of Canaan. Upon his departure from Egypt, Abram had been rewarded by Pharaoh with great wealth.

Pharaoh gave Abram many gifts because of her—sheep, goats, cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. – Genesis 12:16 NLT

Hagar had probably been among the many male and female servants who accompanied Abram back to the land of Canaan. And, at some point, she had been elevated to her position as Sarai’s personal maidservant, which eventually led to her selection as the surrogate birth mother for her mistress.

It is fascinating to consider the intricate and interconnected plot lines that permeate the story of Abram’s life. Early on, even before God called Abram and commanded him to move to Canaan, Abram’s father had already decided to uproot his family from Ur and relocate them to the very same spot. It was while they were temporarily residing in Haran, that God shared His plan and promise to Abram.

Later on, Abram made a decision to escape a famine in Canaan by seeking food and shelter in Egypt. Little did he know at the time that the famine had been God’s doing. Once in Egypt, Abram feared the Egyptians would kill him in order to gain access to his attractive wife. So, he concocted a misguided plan to save his own skin declaring Sarai to be his sister. This resulted in Pharaoh confiscating Sarai as his own personal property and placing her in his harem. But paid a handsome bride price to Sarai’s “brother.” Abram ended up a much wealthier man despite his deceit and deception. And God graciously rescued Sarai from her captivity, returning her to Abram, and sending the two of them back to Canaan.

God had been working behind the scenes “in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” All along, God had been working His sovereign will – despite Abram’s selfish and self-centered actions. And the same thing was true for Sarai’s misguided attempt to do God a favor by implementing her own plan to fulfill His long-delayed promise.

Both Sarai and Abram were oblivious to what God was going. She was mad and blamed Abram. Abram simply shrugged his shoulders and told her to do what she thought best.

“Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.” – Genesis 16:6 NLT

He wasn’t about to come between his disgruntled wife and her pregnant maidservant. In fact, he wanted no part of what he considered to be a no-win situation. Abram displays a disappointing lack of leadership and integrity throughout this ordeal. He had been willing to “go into” Hagar, but now he refused to stand up for her. He was abandoning his responsibilities as a husband and a father. He placed Hagar at the mercy of his disgruntled and vengeful wife.  And Moses makes it clear that Sarai wasted no time inacting her revenge.

Then Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away. – Genesis 16:6 NLT

But as before, God’s sovereign, all-knowing will reveals itself again. Hagar fled into the desert to escape the wrath of her mistress but, while there, she encounters the mercy of gracious God. Moses indicates that “The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur” (Genesis 16:7 NLT). This does not mean the angel had been sent on a search-and-rescue mission from God, hoping to find this missing pregnant woman. God knew Hagar’s exact whereabouts, and that is right where the angel found her.

The angel asked Hagar two questions that were designed to elicit the rationale behind her flight. The angel already knew the answers but he wanted Hagar to consider the absurdity of her decision to seek refuge in the wilderness. She was an abandoned and unprotected pregnant woman attempting to fend for herself in the most inhospitable of places. She was hopeless and helpless. Or so she thought. In her mind, she had gone from the prized position as the mother of Abram’s offspring to a social pariah preparing to give birth to a bastard child in the middle of nowhere. Yet, God had news for Hagar.

When Hagar acknowledged that she was running from the wrath of Sarai, the angel gave her the surprising and somewhat disconcerting instructions to return. And then he added a shocking addendum to his command.

“I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” – Genesis 16:10 ESV

This was the angel of the Lord speaking on behalf of His Master. He was delivering to Hagar the very same God-guaranteed promise that Abram and Sarai had received. This transplanted and recently abandoned Egyptian slave girl had just received a promise from God that she would be the mother of a great nation. Abram and Sarai had condemned she and her yet-born son to a certain death, but God had chosen to reward her with progeny and a fruitful posterity.

God even assured Hagar that she could safely return to her mistresses’ side and fear no repercussions. He would go with her and protect her. At this point, Hagar has no idea what God has in store. The prospect of returning to the unfriendly and potentially hostile atmosphere of Abram’s household must have frightened her. Would she be welcomed with open arms or clenched fists? Upon his birth, would her son be accepted or rejected? She had no way of knowing how God would fulfill the promise He made, but as the following verses will make clear, she eventually took God at His word and obeyed.

Despite Sarai’s plotting and scheming and Abram’s spineless leadership, Hagar had a future, because God had a plan – a plan even included her.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

An Alien and Undeserved Righteousness

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 ESV

With His telling of the parable of the unrighteous judge, it appears that Jesus was taking a bit of a diversion from discussing the shortcomings of the Pharisees. But in many ways, the parable was just another in a long line of stinging indictments of these self-righteous men who had made a god out of their religion. While Jesus has begun to focus His attention on His disciples in an attempt to prepare them for what lies ahead, He has not stopped exposing the arrogant and uncaring nature of the Pharisees and their fellow religious leaders.

In His previous parable, Jesus told the story of “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man” (Luke 18:2 ESV). This man, by virtue of his role, was meant to be an unbiased arbiter, settling disputes between two parties. But how could he do so if he “neither feared God nor respected man?” And this man’s presence in the story was meant to reflect the attitude of the Jewish religious leaders. According to Jesus, they were guilty of the same thing. And by using the term “judge,” Jesus was not offering them a compliment. The Outline of Biblical Usage describes a judge as “one who passes or arrogates to himself, judgment on anything.”

The Pharisees were quick to judge, condemning others for their lack of religious zeal and their failure to keep all the man-made rules and regulations they had appended to the Mosaic Law. At one point Jesus had delivered a strong word of warning against these men.

“…what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Luke 11:46 NLT

They had become self-appointed judges of the people who feared no repercussions from God. In fact, they actually thought they were doing God a favor by holding the people to such high moral and ethical standards. But like the widow in the parable, the poor and disenfranchised of Israel were longing for justice. They were seeking a judge who would act righteously and deliver justice on their behalf.

Consider closely verse 9 of this chapter. Luke records that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). It seems obvious that Jesus was focusing His attention of the Pharisees who were still lingering on the edges of the crowd that followed Him. Despite all He had said against them, they had not gone anywhere. But Jesus was not just addressing the Pharisees. Their longstanding attitude of spiritual superiority and self-righteousness had infected others.  They had gone out of their way to teach their flawed philosophy of religion to others, something for which Jesus held them accountable.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT

As far as Jesus was concerned, self-righteousness was a dangerous and deadly heresy that led people to rely on their own efforts and merits to earn favor with God. It was a dead-end street that eventually terminated with eternal separation from God. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). The apostle Paul would later quote from the psalms in order to convey the same universal and inescapable reality:

“No one is righteous—
    not even one.
No one is truly wise;
    no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
    all have become useless.
No one does good,
    not a single one.” – Romans 3:10-12 NLT

Self-righteousness is the greatest form of blasphemy because the one who practices it sets himself up as God. He elevates himself to the place of the Almighty, determining his eternal state based on his own biased judgment, rather than that of God. Anyone who believes he has earned a right standing before God has diminished the deadly nature of sin and devalued the righteous standards of God.

There is no way to get around the fact that in order for anyone to consider themselves to be righteous based on their own efforts, they must lower God’s standard for holiness. Which is really diminishing the holiness of God Himself, because He is the ultimate standard by which we are judged. So, rather than using God as the gold standard for holiness, men begin to compare themselves with one another. According to the apostle Paul, this horizontal matrix for measuring holiness is not only flawed but foolish.

…we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant! – 2 Corinthians 10:12 NLT

So, in His parable, Jesus relates the story of two men who have gone to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee, an icon of religious rectitude. The other was a tax collector, who represented the spiritual dregs of society. Yet, Jesus places both men in the temple courtyard where they are praying to God. But that is where the similarities end. Jesus portrays the Pharisee as a self-consumed man with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. He stands in the temple courtyard and boldly prays:

“‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

His words are the epitome of arrogance and pride. In a blatant display of self-righteous self-congratulation, he declares his moral superiority to the God of the universe. And he does so by comparing himself to the tax collector who is standing nearby. To the Pharisee, the differences between the two men could not be more obvious. Based on his religious zeal and faithful adherence to the smallest requirement of the law, he holds the moral high ground. He has earned the right to be heard by God.

Yet, Jesus quickly moves the focus from the fictional Pharisee to the tax collector, who “stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow…” (Luke 18:13 NLT). In starks contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector epitomizes humility and a high degree of self-awareness. He knows exactly what he is and what he justly deserves.

“O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” – Luke 18:13 NLT

Fully aware that his sin separates him from a holy God, this man pleads for mercy. He confesses his sinful state and, in a sense, places himself at the mercy of the court. He is more than willing to let the Judge decide his fate but he longs for justice coupled with mercy and forgiveness.

And then, Jesus dropped the bombshell:

I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of Jesus’ statement. He is declaring that the tax collector, a self-admitted sinner, is declared to be righteous by God. This is a judicial act by which God, in His sovereign authority, deems the unrighteous to be righteous in His eyes. The apostle Paul would expand on this marvelous thought in his letter to the believers in Rome.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:21-25 NLT

Jesus was hinting at a reality to come. He was going to go to the cross and offer Himself as the sinless substitute for sinful mankind. And all those who were willing to recognize and confess their sins and place their faith in Him would be imputed His righteousness as a gift from God. Jesus would take on their sin and, in exchange, they would receive His righteousness. But this “great exchange” begins with the sinner’s willingness to confess his desperate need for a Savior. Like the widow who needed a judge to settle her case, sinners are dependent upon the Judge of the universe to rule in their favor. Not based on their own merit, but according to His mercy and grace.

The apostle Paul, who in his former life was a dedicated and zealous Pharisee, offered his radically altered understanding of how one is made right with God.

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

At one time, Paul would have been that self-righteous Pharisee standing in the courtyard singing his own praises. But, mercifully, Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus, blinding his eyes, but helping him see for the first time the sin that separated him from a holy God. He went from being a self-righteous Pharisee facing an eternity separated from God to a self-confessing sinner who received the righteousness of Christ and the assurance of eternal life.

So, Jesus wrapped up His little parable with the sobering statement:

“…those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

The apostle Peter would reiterate the words of Jesus in his first letter:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. – 1 Peter 5:5-6 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Unworthy, Yet Rewarded Servants

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10 ESV

These verses, if taken out of their context, will leave the reader scratching their head in confusion. Yet, it almost appears as if they have no context. Even when read as part of the overall narrative of chapters 14-17, they can still come across as shocking in tone and perplexing in terms of their meaning. The disciples have just asked Jesus to increase their faith. But He informed them that their problem was not the size of their faith, but the source of their power. They were thinking that it all revolved around them. With more faith, they believed they could accomplish more good works for God. And this mindset was not far from the attitude of the Pharisees, who believed their right standing with God was based on all that they had done for Him. They viewed themselves as faithful sons of God who diligently observed all of His laws and, therefore, deserved His blessings.

Throughout these four chapters, Luke has been faithfully chronicling Jesus’ ongoing lessons regarding the self-righteous and self-promoting mindset of the religious leaders of Israel. They were glory-seeking grand-standers who loved to parade their superior spirituality in front of the common people. They lived for the praise of men and were obsessed with social status and material gain. Luke described these icons of moral virtue as “lovers of money” (16:14 ESV). And Jesus accused them of caring more about the approval of men than the righteous appraisal of God.

“You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God. – Luke 16:15 NLT

They lived with their eyes focused solely on the rewards of this life. And those rewards took the form of praise, respectability, power, and prominence. Their lives were a living example of Jesus’ words in His sermon on the mount.

“Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 NLT

Jesus went on to say that those who “toot their own horns,“ calling attention to their acts of charity, will receive the reward of human praise, but will end up forfeiting their eternal reward. Jesus made it clear that His followers were to give without seeking a pat on the back or any other kind of earthly recognition.

“Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:4 NLT

And Jesus continued to reiterate this seemingly aberrant admonition.

“…when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:6 NLT

“…when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:17-18 NLT

The Pharisees lived for earthly, temporal rewards. Their focus was on the here-and-now, and they expected to receive divine compensation for all their tithing, praying, and obeying. And Jesus knew that even His disciples had a difficult time accepting the idea of delayed gratification. They had each made the decision to follow Jesus, hoping that He might be the long-awaited Messiah. And they were eagerly anticipating the day when He would set up His kingdom on earth and reward them with places of prominence and power in His royal administration. They continued to maintain that hope right up to the literal end. In fact, after His resurrection, Jesus gathered His disciples together on a hillside to give them one last set of instructions before He returned to His Father’s side in heaven. But even at that momentous occasion, they couldn’t stop thinking about the one thing they desired more than anything else.

So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” – Acts 1:6 NLT

They were still waiting for Jesus to set up His kingdom on earth. This question expresses their collective hope that Jesus was finally going to do what they had been longing for Him to do all along: Re-establish Israel as a major force in that region of the world. They were longing to see Israel regain its former glory and power. And Jesus assured them that they would receive power, but not in the form they were expecting.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 6:8 NLT

They would receive a power far greater than anything they could have ever imagined or conceived, and it would be the key to their future success as the apostles of Jesus.

So, as we come to verses 7-10 of Luke 17, it is important that we keep all of this in mind, because Jesus is dealing with the expectation of rewards. Look closely at the question He poses:

“When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’? – Luke 17:7 NLT

This question was meant to be rhetorical. The answer is obvious. No servant or slave would ever expect to be rewarded with a seat at his master’s table just for doing his job. The very idea posed by this question was meant to be preposterous. No servant in his right mind would ever dream of being offered a place at his master’s table. Even if extended the invitation, he would likely refuse it, solely out of humility and an understanding of his own unworthiness.

Jesus answers His own question by describing what everyone knew would be the right and expected response of the master: “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later” (Luke 17:8 NLT). The servant’s work was far from done. He may have completed his tasks in the field and among the flocks, but that did not mean he deserved a reward. And no servant would have expected one. His job was to serve his master. His needs came second. His reward, if any, would not come until his work was completed to the master’s satisfaction.

Then Jesus asks another rhetorical question: “And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do?” (Luke 17:9 NLT). Once again, no servant would have expected a thank you, let alone a word of praise or commendation. That would have been ridiculous. And Jesus affirms this when He answers His own question: “Of course not” (Luke 17:9 NLT).

But, just so His disciples don’t miss the point, Jesus clarifies it for them.

“In the same way, when you obey me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’” – Luke 17:10 NLT

Unlike the Pharisees, the disciples of Jesus were to obey, not for the sake of reward, but out of respect for their Master.  During His earthly ministry, Jesus repeatedly expressed His own willingness to fulfill His God-ordained role as the servant of God the Father.

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” – John 4:34 ESV

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” – John 8:38-39 ESV

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

Jesus was asking nothing of His disciples that He was not willing to do Himself. And the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus fulfilled His servant role all the way to the end.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:6-11 NLT

The religious leaders of Israel wrongly viewed themselves as somehow deserving of God’s rewards. They would have never considered themselves to be “unworthy servants.”  But that is exactly how Jesus expects His disciples to see themselves. And the apostle Paul would reinforce this humble mindset when he wrote to the arrogant and puffed-up believers in Corinth.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

An Eternal Reward

1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.” – Luke 16:1-17 ESV

According to verse one, Jesus directed this particular parable at His disciples, but it would appear that the Pharisees were still within hearing distance. Verse 14 indicates that when they “heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.” Ever since they showed up as guests at the dinner at their boss’s house (Luke 14:1), these men had been forced to listen to a series of less-than-subtle parables designed to place them in a bad light. And they had just about had their fill of Jesus’ made-up stories and folksy tales of wedding feasts, banquets, lost coins, and wandering sheep. They would have fully understood Jesus’ portrayal of them as the older brother in the parable of the father who prematurely rewarded his sons with their inheritance. And they wouldn’t have seen their part in the story as particularly flattering.

By this point in their ongoing interactions with Jesus, the Pharisees had figured out His parables were meant to paint them in a bad light, and verse 14 indicates that they didn’t like this parable at all. And Luke makes it clear that the primary issue Jesus was addressing in the parable was money. Jesus started His parable by stating, “There was a certain rich man” (Luke 16:1 NLT). Then, immediately after Jesus finished His parable, Luke added, “The Pharisees, who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him” (Luke 16:14 NLT). The entire parable is bookended by references to money or wealth, and the entire content of the parable deals with the very same topic. 

It’s important to remember that Jesus has already scolded the Pharisee who hosted the party in his home for only inviting those who could return the favor. The dining room had been filled with other Pharisees, scribes, and members of the upper crust of society, who had the financial wherewithal to reciprocate the host’s generous invitation. Jesus clearly viewed the Pharisees as men who were lovers of money and serial social climbers. They were addicted to ease and comfort and craved the praise of men. Matthew recorded Jesus’ rather blunt assessment of their fame-driven lifestyle.

“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’” – Matthew 23:5-7 NLT

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus warned His audience against emulating the materialistic lifestyle of the religious leaders of Israel.

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

And He went on to add:

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. – Matthew 6:24 NLT

Notice His emphasis on money and its dangerous ability to enslave us. When we allow money and material goods to become our focus, we end up trapped in a never-ending cycle of worry and anxiety. When we own a lot of possessions, we face the constant fear of losing them. When we don’t have enough, we spend all our time coveting more. We’re never satisfied. That’s why Jesus added:

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” – Matthew 6:31-33 NLT

But back to the parable. In it, Jesus described a rich man whose wealth had been grossly mismanaged by one of his employees. This individual had been entrusted with the management of his master’s vast wealth and resources. The rich man had so wealthy that he required someone to steward all his assets. But his employee had proven to be far from trustworthy. In fact, Jesus describes the steward’s actions as wasteful. The Greek word is diaskorpizō, and it is the same word Jesus used to describe the younger son who squandered his inheritance. The steward virtually threw away his master’s resources, treating them with disdain because they didn’t belong to him.

Having already determined to fire his unfaithful steward, the master ordered that he bring in all the financial records so that they might be inspected. Recognizing the seriousness of his situation and fearing how he will survive without a job, the steward concocts an ingenious exit strategy. In short, he cooked the books. He called in all the man’s creditors and informed them that he was dramatically slashing the size of their debt. This clever ploy by the unjust steward was intended to secure the favor of the creditors and ensure that he had friends who would care for him when he lost his job.

“I don’t have the strength to dig ditches, and I’m too proud to beg. Ah, I know how to ensure that I’ll have plenty of friends who will give me a home when I am fired.” – Luke 16:3-4 NLT

And Jesus indicates that the rich man was impressed with his steward’s ingenuity.

The rich man had to admire the dishonest rascal for being so shrewd. – Luke 16:8 NLT

This is a strange parable and its message is somewhat difficult to assess. Is Jesus commending dishonesty and applauding the unjust steward’s ingenuity? That seems unlikely. Jesus’ primary point seems to be that the steward had always been in charge of his master’s resources and that he had always had the capacity to steward those resources well. He was a clever man who was wise in the ways of the world. But when he viewed the money as belonging to his master, he proved to be a bad manager. He threw away what did not belong to him. But when his personal well-being was on the line, he suddenly became a financial wizard. He knew just what to do to secure a more favorable future. This man was thinking about the here-and-now. He was doing what he had to do to make sure he was neither homeless nor forced to beg. He was shrewd.

And that seems to be Jesus’ point. He states, “the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light” (Luke 16:8 NLT). This man knew how to rig the system in his favor. But Jesus is not commending his dishonesty. He is simply contrasting the children of this world with the children of light, or to put it another way, unbelievers and believers.

Jesus is encouraging His disciples to use everything at their disposal to seek eternal rewards. Remember what He said in His sermon on the mount: “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33 NLT). As children of light, the disciples were to wisely steward their gifts and their treasures in order to secure eternal rewards. The unfaithful steward was using his master’s wealth in an unjust way in order to secure a more favorable and temporal future. So, what did Jesus mean when He told His disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth” (Luke 16:9 ESV)? Clearly, He was not suggesting that they do anything dishonest or illegal. In and of itself, money is amoral. It is neither good nor bad. In that sense, it is un-righteous. So, Jesus is encouraging His disciples to use it wisely and for righteous means. Be generous and open-handed with it. Do not hoard it or covet more of it. 

Jesus wanted His followers to use everything at their disposal to promote and propagate the Gospel. Rather than pursuing temporal treasures and the immediate gratification that material goods can bring, followers of Christ are to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. And even their money and material possessions are to be seen as means to an end. They are tools to be used for the furthering of the kingdom. And Jesus makes it clear that His followers are to be trustworthy and faithful stewards of all that they have been given. Their time, talent, and treasures are all gifts from God and intended to seek and spread the kingdom of God.

And Jesus ends His parable by encouraging faithfulness.

“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities. And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven? And if you are not faithful with other people’s things, why should you be trusted with things of your own?” – Luke 16:1-12 NLT

True disciples are good stewards. They use what they have been given wisely and manage their resources carefully. They seek an eternal reward, not a temporal one.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Prodigal Son and the Prideful Brother

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” – Luke 15:11-32 ESV

This particular story that Jesus told has come to be known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But if one considers the context in which this parable was originally told, it might be better titled, The Parable of the Disgruntled Brother. This entire section of Luke’s gospel, beginning in chapter 14 and continuing through the closing verses of chapter 15, contains a lengthy discourse by Jesus that exposes the true character of the religious leaders of Israel.

It all began with Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. This miracle took place in the home of a ruler of the Pharisees, where Jesus had been invited to dine with other members of the ruling class. It had all been a set-up, designed to put Jesus on the spot. In the middle of the dinner, a man suffering from dropsy just happened to appear, seemingly out of nowhere. But it seems likely that he had been sent for by the host of the party, in order to see if Jesus would attempt to heal him and violate the Mosaic law forbidding work on the Sabbath.

Jesus healed the man and then told a series of parables designed to expose the hearts of these religious leaders who claimed to be the overseers of the people of Israel but who showed little compassion for their spiritual or physical needs. In His first parable, Jesus warned the Pharisees and scribes, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11 ESV). These were men who took great pride in their social standing and what they believed to be their superior spiritual status. They craved recognition and coveted the praise of men.

Jesus publicly rebuked His host for only inviting those to his dinner party who could return the favor. He had stacked his guest list with the names of those who would be most likely to reciprocate his kindness by extending him an invitation to dine in their homes. Yet, Jesus suggested that he do just the opposite.

“…when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” – Luke 14:13-14 ESV

But the Pharisee would have found this advice to be thoroughly appalling and illogical. What possible benefit could he receive from inviting those whom he considered cursed by God? In his perverse way of thinking, the poor, crippled, lame, and blind were suffering because they were sinners. He considered them unclean and unworthy of his attention. And, not only that, even if he did invite them into his home, they had no way of returning the favor. The Pharisee could not imagine a return on his investment. But Jesus told him:

“…you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” – Luke 14:14 ESV

But the Pharisee already considered himself to be just. He had earned his right standing with God through meticulous adherence to the Mosaic Law. But Jesus warned the man that his future standing with God might not be as secure as he supposed. He told another parable about a man sending out invitations to a great banquet. But when the day arrived for the banquet to begin, the invited guests all failed to show up. They each gave an excuse for not being able to attend. In anger, the host sent out his servant to “bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21 ESV). The servant did as he was told and, before long, the banquet hall was filled with those who couldn’t believe their good fortune to be invited to a feast of this magnitude. And the host declared that his original guests would not be allowed in, even if they showed up.

“…none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.” – Luke 14:24 ESV

Despite all His teachings, the Pharisees continued to view His association with tax collectors and sinners as unacceptable behavior for a religious leader. In their minds, Jesus suffered from poor judgment and was invalidating His ministry through His constant contact with the ceremonially unclean. But Jesus continued to expose their calloused hearts through the use of parables. He used the analogies of the lost sheep and the lost coin to illustrate God’s love and compassion for all those whom the Pharisees had written off as worthless. God had sent His Son into the world to save the lost. He had come to minister to the weak, suffering, sick, and dying. But the Pharisees refused to see themselves as helpless and hopeless. They were self-made men who believed their superior spiritual health rendered them immune from God’s judgment. They were healthy, whole, and in no need of a physician.

At one point, early on in His ministry, Jesus visited the house of Matthew, who happened to be a tax collector. The scribes and Pharisees who witnessed Jesus sharing a meal with Matthew and his fellow tax collectors expressed their disgust that He would associate with such sinners. To this Jesus replied, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT).

This brings us to the parable of the prodigal son. In this parable, Jesus tells of two brothers who share the same father from whom they hope to one day receive their inheritance. According to the Mosaic Law, the older son was to receive a double portion of the inheritance. The father was to “the rights of his oldest son…by giving him a double portion. He is the first son of his father’s virility, and the rights of the firstborn belong to him” (Deuteronomy 21:17 NLT). But typically, the inheritance was not distributed until the father’s death. But in the parable that Jesus told, the younger son came to his father demanding to receive his inheritance early.

Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me. – Luke 15:12 ESV

The father gave in to his younger son’s demands but chose to award both sons with their designated inheritance. He divided up his wealth between them. This is a point that often gets overlooked. The older brother received his double-portion of the inheritance at the very same time. But the younger brother “packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living” (Luke 15:13 NLT). Before long, he was broke and broken, and ready to return to his father’s house, even if it meant he had to do so as a hired servant. He had been greatly humbled by his experience in the big city and recognized how much he missed his father’s love and affection. So, he came up with a plan.

‘I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ – Luke 15:18-19 NLT

This is where the story gets interesting. The young man returned and was shocked to find his father not only waiting for him but eager to welcome him back into the family. He exclaimed, “this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found” (Luke 15:24 NLT). In celebration of his son’s return, the father threw a great feast. He even supplied his son with a new robe, sandals, and an expensive ring. The son had expected to be treated as little more than a slave, but instead, he was welcomed back with joy and treated like a celebrity.

But the older brother, who had been working in the fields, returned to this scene of unexpected celebration and was infuriated. And it doesn’t take much imagination to guess who the older brother represents in the story. He had stayed at home, faithfully fulfilling his duties, while his ungrateful brother had been off committing unmentionable sins in faraway lands. While the younger brother had been busy squandering his inheritance, the older brother had played the part of the dutiful son, caring for the land his father had bequeathed to him. As part of his inheritance, the older son would have received the double-portion, which would have included the land. It was his to care for. It now belonged to him. But he painted a very different picture. He became angry at his father’s ostentatious treatment of his younger brother and declared his frustration.

“All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” – Luke 15:29-30 NLT

In true pharisaical fashion, the older brother denounced the actions of his father. He wrestled with what he believed to be a great injustice and a clear case of inequity. Notice his emphasis on faithful obedience and the years he had spent “slaving” away on this father’s behalf. But, in reality, he had been working his own land. He had been tending his own fields and benefiting from the inheritance he had been given by his father. He viewed himself as the victim in this story. Somehow, he had been aggrieved by his father’s actions. And yet, all along he had been enjoying the gracious gift of his father’s wealth and lands. He had not suffered. He had not gone without. He had not been cheated in any way. But his pride and jealousy prevented him from rejoicing at the return of his brother. Like the Pharisees who could not understand Jesus associating with tax collectors and sinners, the older brother couldn’t comprehend his father’s treatment of his undeserving brother. But the father tried to help him understand the heart behind his actions.

“Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!” – Luke 15:31-32 NLT

This seems to be the crux of Jesus’ message throughout these two chapters. The Pharisees, who viewed themselves as the faithful children of God, refused to show mercy to those who were the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6). When Jesus saw the crowds of people following Him, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 ESV). But the Pharisees could not bring themselves to care for the shepherdless sheep. Just as the older brother could not understand his father’s over-the-top treatment of his undeserving sibling, the Pharisees could not comprehend Jesus’ care and concern for the undeserving multitudes. But the prodigal son had returned in repentance and humility, fully aware of his sins and ready to beg for his father’s forgiveness. But the older brother revealed his true colors. As long as he remained the center of his father’s attention and the beneficiary of his father’s blessings, he was happy. But his brother’s return and his father’s response were more than he could bear. He may have shared his father’s inheritance, but he did not share his father’s heart.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Ninety-and-Nine

1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” – Luke 15:3-7 ESV

One doesn’t have to be a theologian to notice the vast difference between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. All along the way in his gospel, Luke has provided a clear and compelling contrast between the itinerant Rabbi from the Nazareth and the highly educated, socially sophisticated Pharisees and scribes who ruled the roost in Jerusalem. These men viewed Jesus as an uneducated bumpkin from Galilee who had suddenly appeared on the scene performing miracles and preaching messages that declared the coming of the kingdom of God. In a very short period of time, Jesus had managed to amass a huge fan base that followed Him everywhere. And His growing popularity made the religious leaders of Israel both nervous and jealous. He was robbing them of glory by tarnishing their stellar reputation among the people. On more than one occasion, Jesus had pointed out the hypocrisy of their ways. He had labeled them as liars and called them children of the devil.

But the greatest difference between Jesus and these men can be seen in their attitude toward the poor and needy. It would be safe to say that the Pharisees and scribes had a less-than-flattering view of the less fortunate. Their concept of righteousness or what it means to be right with God was based on merit and measured by a set of external criteria. To their way of thinking, the common people were spiritually stunted and morally depraved, preventing the nation of Israel from experiencing the full blessings of Yahweh.

Yet, Jesus had shown up on the scene preaching a message of blessing that was aimed at the very people the Pharisees despised. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had shocked His audience by pronouncing a series of blessings on the “least of these.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted…” – Matthew 5:3-10 ESV

And it was Jesus’ emphasis on the down and out that rubbed the Pharisees the wrong way. They couldn’t understand His attraction to and affinity for those whom they considered the dregs of society. The Pharisees viewed these people as lead weights that were keeping the nation from experiencing the glory of God. That’s why they continually confronted Jesus about His association with “tax collectors and sinners.” And Luke brings up yet another instance when the Pharisees took exception with Jesus hanging out with the loveable losers of Israel.

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! – Luke 15:1-2 ESV

The religious leaders had deemed this class of people as unwelcome within polite society. Not only that, the Pharisees and scribes considered these unfortunate people to be spiritually unclean, their sinful lifestyles providing evidence of their moral impurity. So, they were treated as outcasts by the more pious-minded and religiously superior segment of society.

When Jesus because aware of the Pharisees’ complaint against Him, He responded with a story in the form of a parable, and it began with a rhetorical question:

“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it.” – Luke 15:4 NLT

Everyone in the crowd would have known the right answer to this question because there was only be one. Notice that Jesus did not refute the Pharisees’ derogatory description of the people as “sinners.” In fact, He essentially affirms that these people were “lost” and in need of rescue. To borrow from a phrase He had used earlier in His ministry, Jesus saw them as “sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. – Matthew 9:35-36 NLT

In Jesus’ story, the one wandering sheep was well worth seeking. Rather than wait for the Pharisees and scribes to answer His question, Jesus reveals that the shepherd in the story did the right thing: He searched for the lost sheep until he found it. He showed compassion. He recognized that the sheep who had wandered was in danger and in need of rescue. It would be incapable of saving itself.

Because Jesus was the Living Word, He was intimately familiar with the written Word of God. He quoted from it often. And, in this case, He clearly had in mind the words that Isaiah the prophet had penned centuries earlier.

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. – Isaiah 53:6 NLT

In this passage, Isaiah describes the infinite mercy of God as revealed in the amazing gift of His Son as the atonement for the sins of mankind.

…he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

And though humanity had knowingly and willingly wandered away, God sent His Son to seek out and save sinners.

Yet the LORD laid on him the sins of us all. – Isaiah 53:6 NLT

The apostle Paul describes this incredible search-and-rescue operation in staggering terms:

God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

And in Jesus’ story, the shepherd returns with his rescued sheep, declaring his extreme joy at having saved even one that had wandered. And he invites his friends and neighbors to join in the celebration.

“Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.” – Luke 15:6 NLT

Whether the Pharisees and scribes realized it or not, they are portrayed in Jesus’ story, but not in flattering terms. They are represented by the 99 other sheep whom the shepherd left behind when he went in search of the one who was lost. In the story, the shepherd leaves the 99 in the “open country” or wilderness. The word Jesus used is very specific and reveals that He is attempting to make a serious and sobering point about His enemies, the Pharisees. The Greek word is erēmos, and it can best be translated as desert or wilderness. It describes a lonely and uninhabited place.

Jesus was indicting the very men who had questioned His poor choice of friends. And He compares them to the 99 who got left behind. But why did Jesus use this analogy to expose the true nature of the religious leaders? He provides some helpful insight in verse 7.

“…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” – Luke 15:7 ESV

Jesus uses irony to make His point. The 99 serves as a symbol for all those who consider themselves to be righteous and in no need of repentance. They are the self-righteous and piously prideful spiritual leaders of Israel. The New Living Translation records verse 7 this way:

“…there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! – Luke 15:7 NLT

This brings to mind another familiar parable that Jesus told and it is located just a few verses after this one in Luke 15. It is typically referred to as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But one of the main characters in the parable who typically gets overlooked is the older brother who “stayed behind” while the younger brother sowed his oats and squandered his inheritance. When the younger brother came back, financially broke and emotionally broken, the father threw a lavish party to celebrate his return. But the older brother became angry and complained to his father.

“Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” – Luke 15:29 ESV

Because of the context, we know that Jesus is using the older brother to further expose the hypocrisy and pride of the Pharisees. They are the 99 who stayed behind and never strayed. They are the rule-keeping older brother who stayed behind and never disobeyed a single command his father gave him. In both cases, the 99 and the older brother are those who refuse to acknowledge their own sin and their need for a Savior. They believe themselves to be righteous and in no need of a Savior. But as Jesus so aptly put it, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Luke 5:31 NLT).

Jesus knew the Pharisees would never acknowledge their “lostness.” They had no need to be found because they had never wandered away. They were the faithful, obedient older brother who had stuck by God’s side through thick and thin. They were the compliant sheep who remained in the “pasture” of their own piety, oblivious to the fact that they were actually in the “desert” of their own sin.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Unexpected and Undeserving Guests

15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” – Luke 14:15-24 ESV

At least one of the guests who heard Jesus’ parable about the wedding feast seemed to understand that He was actually talking about the kingdom of God. Perhaps he was only trying to show off his own spiritual savviness in front of the other learned and well-respected guests. He wanted everyone to know that he understood the meaning behind the parable. But did he?

His comment, while intended to make him sound erudite and informed, was actually missing the whole point of Jesus’ lesson. His rather innocuous statement probably had everyone in the room shaking their head in agreement, except Jesus.

“What a blessing it will be to attend a banquet in the Kingdom of God!” – Luke 14:15 NLT

His words have an air of pompousness about them. In a sense, he is subtly including himself in the list of those who will be fortunate enough to be a guest at the table of God. He fully expects to be invited to dine with God Almighty in His Kingdom. After all, he had been on the guest list to attend the dinner party put on by the ruler of the Pharisees, so it only made sense that he would be one of the fortunate few to break bread with God.

It seems obvious that this man was not one of “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13 NLT) that Jesus had mentioned. He was most likely a well-respected member of the community, even perhaps a fellow Pharisee. This man was not from the lower rungs of the societal pecking order. Yet, Jesus had said that someone who truly loved God and others would invite the lowly and the despised to be guests at their dinner.

But this unidentified man seemed to believe that God had reserved seats at His banquet for those who had earned their way into His good graces. Like the Pharisees and scribes reclining around the table beside him, this man was convinced that he was one of those who had been blessed by God. He was self-assured and confident that there was a place reserved for him at God’s table. But Jesus used another parable to expose the flaws in the man’s logic.

“A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’” – Luke 14:16 NLT

The man in the story is meant to represent God, while the servant is intended to play the part of Jesus, the faithful servant. Formal invitations have been sent out in advance to a select list of guests, inviting them to join the host for a wonderful feast. It seems from the context of the story, that no date had been given for the feast. So, when all the preparations were complete and the day of feasting finally arrived, the man sent out his servant to gather all the invited guests.

“But they all began making excuses.” – Luke 14:18 NLT

Jesus does not provide any kind of timeline for His story, so it’s impossible to know how much time had passed between the sending of the invitations and the announcement by the servant. Yet it appears that the invited guests had all but forgotten about the banquet. They had made other plans. And those excuses for not attending the feast ran the gamut.

“One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’” – Luke 14:18-20 NLT

All three guests mention changes in their life circumstances. While the man had been busy preparing his elaborate feast, these people had gone on with their lives. One had purchased a tract of land. Another had acquired a team of oxen with which to plow his fields. And finally, another had “bought” himself a wife. According to The Jewish Virtual Library, a groom was expected to provide compensation to the bride’s father.

In biblical times, mohar (מֹהַר), whereby the groom bought his wife from her father (Gen. 24:53; Ex. 22:15–16; Hos. 3:2), was the accepted practice. It was then customary that the groom give the bride gifts, and that she bring certain property to her husband’s home upon marriage: slaves, cattle, real estate, etc. (cf. Gen. 24:59–61; 29; Judg. 1:14ff.; I Kings 9:16).

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org

So, in all three cases, these men had made some kind of financial investment that prevented them from honoring the invitation they had received. In a sense, they allowed their recent procurements to take precedence over the feast.

It was the faithful servant who was tasked with informing the invited guests that the long-awaited day of the feast had arrived. He went from home to home informing them of the exciting news, but his words were met with nothing but excuses. No one accepted his invitation to the feast. And this part of the story must have left Jesus’ audience dumbfounded. They would have been appalled by the audacity of anyone who refused an invitation to what was obviously a significant event put on by an extremely wealthy and influential person. But what they failed to realize was that Jesus was talking about them. They were the invited guests in the story. They had received an invitation from God to join Him at the great feast in the kingdom.

God had chosen the people of Israel to be His treasured possession. He had set them apart as His own and had blessed them with His law, the sacrificial system, and the covenant promises. The apostle Paul, a Jew and a former Pharisee, clearly articulated the unique status enjoyed by the Jews, God’s chosen people.

They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. – Romans 9:4-5 NLT

And Paul went on to describe how the Israelites had turned down God’s invitation to rest in His power and provision.

But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. – Romans 9:31-32 NLT

Rather than trusting in Him, they had put all their hope in their ability to “purchase” their good standing with Him through good deeds. In a sense, they were turning down God’s invitation to the future banquet and filling their lives with the temporal pleasures of this world. Paul went on to explain:

For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. – Romans 10:3-4 NLT

And, in His story, Jesus reveals that the host was furious with the unacceptable behavior of His ungrateful guests. So, the son was sent out again, this time to scour the streets of the city, in search of “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21 NLT). He was to extend an invitation to the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40), offering them an opportunity to dine with his father at the great feast.

The son did as he was told, but when he had completed the task he informed his father, “There is still room for more” (Luke 14:22 NLT). So, the father instructed him to go out and search for others, until every seat in the banquet hall was filled. And the father warned that all those who had turned down the original invitation would find themselves on the outside looking in.

“For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.” – Luke 14:24 NLT

And Jesus had made a similar statement after observing the faith of a Roman centurion. He declared, “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Matthew 8:10 NLT), and then He added:

“I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 8:11-12 NLT

The Pharisees and scribes reclining at the table with Jesus had made it clear that they were not fans of His. They refused to accept Him as their long-awaited Messiah. They categorically denied any claim He had to be the Son of God. They were the guests who had received an invitation to the banquet, but who refused to listen to the words of the faithful servant. Instead, they came up with excuses. They decided to go on with the everyday affairs of life, dismissing the gracious invitation of the Host and ignoring the pleas of His Son. And, as a result, rather than being blessed to eat bread in the kingdom of God, they would find themselves as permanent outcasts from His presence.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson