A Sacrifice Worth Making

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” Luke 18:18-30 ESV

It’s amazing to consider the sovereign nature of all of Jesus’ encounters. Nothing that ever happened to Him was ever a case of luck or blind chance. It was all providentially orchestrated by His Heavenly Father. Every lame person who ever came to Jesus for healing did so of their own free will, but under the sovereign direction of God. Even those individuals whose lives were under the oppressive control of a demonic spirit somehow scored a face-to-face encounter with the Son of God. Even the demon within them could not stop the inevitable and irresistible will of God.

God’s timing was always impeccable, and the Son’s adherence to His Father’s will was always irreproachable. So, as Jesus walked in lock-step with His Father’s plan, it was inevitable that He would encounter those whom God had providentially preordained Him to meet. And that is exactly what happens when the rich, young ruler comes to Jesus with an important question. This was not just a case of good timing. It was an example of God’s carefully orchestrated oversight of every phase of His Son’s life and ministry. This particular man showed up at this particular time and with this particular question on his mind.

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Luke 18:18 ESV

Keep in mind that Jesus had just made a startling admission regarding entrance into the kingdom that left His disciples dazed and confused.

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” – Luke 18:17 ESV

And prior to dropping that bombshell on His disciples, Jesus had made another unexpected disclosure regarding justification before God.

“…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 ESV

So, this man’s appearance could not have come at a better time. And his question could not have been more appropriate and applicable to the circumstances.

Luke tells us that this man was a ruler, which infers that he was both powerful and influential. The other synoptic gospels add that he was also rich and young. In other words, he had a lot going for him. We are not told what kind of ruler this man was. He could have served in some kind of governmental capacity. Perhaps he was a leader in the local synagogue. Or he could have been a member of the Sanhedrin. But regardless the nature of his leadership capacity, he seeks out Jesus. And notice how Jesus responds to the him.

“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. – Luke 18:19 ESV

Jesus seemingly ignores the man’s question and focuses on a single word contained within it. The man referred to Jesus as a “good” teacher, but uses this polite but overused description to make an important point. According to psalmist, only God alone is good.

God looks down from heaven
    on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.

They have all fallen away;
    together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
    not even one. – Psalm 53:2-3 ESV

So, why was the young ruler using this word to describe Jesus? The truth is, the man meant nothing by it. But whether the man or anyone else in the crowd understood it, Jesus was subtly inferring His own deity. Jesus really was a “good” teacher. In fact, He was the God-teacher, the God-man.

But Jesus doesn’t belabor the point. Instead, He points out five of the Ten Commandments.

“Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.” – Luke 18:20 ESV

Matthew adds that the man’s request was focused on what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. From the conversation that followed, it seems clear that the man believed he had already done enough. He was young and rich, and from the perspective of most Jews, he was already blessed by God because of his wealth. He was also a religious man because when Jesus listed the five commandments and told the man to keep them, he proudly announced, “All these I have kept from my youth.” (Luke 18:21 ESV).

This man was looking for confirmation, not a list of things to do. As a faithful Jew, he believed he was a child of Abraham and, therefore, a rightful heir to eternal life. As a descendant of Abraham, he was guaranteed a place in God’s eternal Kingdom. Now, he was asking Jesus to place His Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on his life.

The wording of the man’s question is very specific. He uses the word klēronomeō, which means “to obtain by inheritance.” This reveals that he believed eternal life was already rightfully his, but he wants to know how to he can get his hands on it now. He was not willing to wait. His attitude is similar to that of the young man in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In that story, Jesus described another young man from a wealthy family who was destined to inherit his father’s vast riches. But unwilling to wait for his father to die, he demanded that he be given his inheritance right way.

“I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. – Luke 15:12 NLT

Finding himself suddenly wealthy beyond belief, that young man ended up spending everything he had on a life of excess and immorality. He had gotten what he wanted but had misused and abused it.

And, in a similar way, the rich young man kneeling before Jesus was demanding that he be given what was rightfully his: His guaranteed inheritance of eternal life. This man had it all but he wanted more. He coveted the one thing that was missing from his portfolio: Assurance of eternal life.

Because of his wealth, social standing, and success at religious rule-keeping, this young man believed himself to be blessed by God. He viewed himself as a good man who deserved everything that was due to him. And if Jesus could guarantee him that he had done enough to earn eternal life, he could live the rest of his life in ease and comfort. But when Jesus emphasized that “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19 ESV), He was letting this man know that there was only one “good man” participating in this conversation. And it wasn’t the rich, young ruler.

And while this man could brag about having kept the commandments, Jesus knew the truth about his heart. It’s interesting that Jesus only listed five of the commandments and they all had to do with the horizontal relationships between individuals.

These five commandments bring to mind Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In that message, Jesus stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV).

And Jesus had gone on to explain what it looked like to “relax” one of God’s laws. He put hatred on the same par as murder (Matthew 5:22). He compared lust to adultery.

“…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 ESV

Lust, like adultery, is essentially taking what does not belong to you. It is a form of stealing. And Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29 ESV).

All throughout His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a radically different picture of what it means to keep God’s law. It wasn’t just about rule-keeping. It was about a change of the heart. Those who hoped to inherit God’s kingdom would have to live sacrificially and selflessly. Their adherence to God’s laws would have to manifest itself in their relationships with others. That’s why Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 ESV).

Which brings us back to the rich young man. Jesus turned to him and said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22 ESV). This proved to be the deal-breaker. This one “good deed” was more than the man could handle. He was unwilling to part with his wealth. All his law-keeping had cost him nothing. But now Jesus was demanding that he do one thing that would cost him everything.

The man was focused on what Jesus was asking him to give up. But the real tragedy of this story is what the young man eventually turned his back on. He was willing to walk away from eternal life so that he could keep living the “good life.” Mark sadly reports that the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22 ESV).

He was possessed by his possessions. He was held captive by the things of this world. His love of material goods and temporal pleasures proved too great. And years later, the apostle John would probably recall this sad scene when he wrote the following words.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

This man had been young and full of life. He was wealthy and blessed by every imaginable earthly pleasure. He was a ruler who wielded tremendous power and responsibility. In other words, He was great. He was all that the disciples hoped to become. When they looked at the rich young ruler, they saw the image of what they aspired to be. And as the disciples stood in stunned silence watching the young man walk away, Jesus further exploded their misconception of greatness.

“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:23 ESV

This led some in the crowd to exclaim, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26 ESV). If the wealthy, who were obviously blessed by God, were going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom, what hope did they have?  But Jesus assured them, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27 ESV).

At this point, the ever-impulsive Peter stepped into the conversation and reminded Jesus how he and his companions had sacrificed all to follow Him. They weren’t rich like the young ruler, but they had given up everything to be His disciples. Peter was hoping that Jesus would confirm that they had eternal life locked in. According to the criteria Jesus had given the young ruler, Peter figured they had done enough.

But Jesus surprises them by stating: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30 ESV). What Peter did not yet understand was that, with Jesus’ coming death on the cross, he and the other disciples would eventually inherit the Holy Spirit. Not only that, they would end up becoming part of the much larger family of God. But the greatest blessing they would receive would come at the end of the age: Eternal life. But all of it would be based on the work of Christ, not their own human effort. Eternal life was a gift, not a reward for work well done.

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 Heart of a Child

15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. – Luke 18:15-17 ESV

There are times when it appears as if the 12 disciples of Jesus are a few bricks short of a full load. And this is one of them. After reading this passage, it’s difficult not to draw one of two conclusions: Either the disciples are stubborn or simply stupid. They just don’t seem to get it. No matter how many times Jesus addresses an issue with them, the disciples fail to grasp His meaning. Even all His after-class, one-on-twelve tutoring sessions didn’t seem to help.

Before looking at the scene recorded in today’s passage, let’s revisit a few earlier exchanges between Jesus and His disciples that are closely related. First, while they were back in Galilee, Jesus had overheard the disciples arguing over which of them was the greatest. This debate came fast on the heels of Jesus’ announcement that He would soon be delivered into the hands of men and be killed (Mark 9:31). So, immediately after hearing Jesus announce that He was going to lay down His life, they had gotten into a heated argument over which of them was the greatest. This led Jesus to give them an object lesson.

And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” – Mark 9:36-37 ESV

Jesus used this small, seemingly insignificant child to drive home an important point. With the pride-filled disciples gathered around Him, Jesus stood in the midst of them holding this unnamed child in His arms. He placed the one with the least significance in the place of greatest prominence. The child had done nothing to earn this special favor extended to Him by Jesus. He was not powerful, impressive, gifted, or even capable of repaying Jesus for His kindness. But the child was trusting and willing to place his full confidence in Jesus.

Yet, immediately after witnessing this living object lesson, John had chosen to bring up what he believed to be a more pressing matter. He reported that there was an unnamed individual who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The discovery of this unidentified competitor had bothered the disciples enough that they had repeatedly tried to issue him cease-and-desist orders. But their efforts had failed. And much to John’s dismay, rather than seeking to reprimand this rogue exorcist, Jesus rebuked His own disciples.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. – Mark 9:42 ESV

The Greek word Mark used is mikros, which means “small” or “least.” Jesus seems to be referring to this unknown exorcist as one of His children. This man, while not one of the 12 disciples, was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. He was performing the same good deed that Jesus had commissioned His disciples to do. That’s why Jesus John, “Don’t stop him!…No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39 NLT). This man was on their side. 

Yet Jesus refers to him as one of the “least.” He was so insignificant that the disciples didn’t even know his name. But he was important to Jesus. 

This brings us back to the scene taking place in chapter 10. Jesus and His disciples are back in the region of Perea, just east of Judea on the other side of the Jordan River. And Mark opened this chapter by indicating that Jesus’ arrival in the region had attracted the usual large crowds. While many hoped to see Jesus perform a miracle, others had come out of curiosity because Jesus was a 1st-Century celebrity. But Mark indicates that some “were bringing children to him that he might touch them” (Mark 10:13 ESV). Evidently, parents were bringing their young children to Jesus so that He might bless them. But Mark states that “the disciples rebuked them” (Mark 9:13 ESV). These men took it upon themselves to restrict their access to Jesus. They wrongly assumed that they had the authority to determine who was worthy to come into Jesus’ presence. And this whole scene makes even more sense when you consider Luke’s account. He provides some essential details that make the actions of the disciples even more egregious.

Luke records a parable that Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). In this parable, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:10 ESV). The Pharisee stood before God, and in a blatant display of self-promotion, bragged about his superior righteousness as evidenced by his unparalleled fasting and tithing. But the other man stood before God, eyes lowered, declaring his abject state of sinfulness and desperate need for mercy. And then Jesus said, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14 ESV).

Superiority and inferiority. Pride and humility. Greatness and weakness. This parable set up the arrival of the parents with their children. And it explains why Jesus became so indignant with His disciples and demanded, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14 ESV). These little ones were being brought to Jesus by their parents. Too young to come on their own, they were completely at the mercy of others. These children represented complete dependency and trust. There was not an ounce of self-righteousness or moral superiority within them. But the disciples had decided that they were unworthy to come into Jesus’ presence. Had these men so quickly forgotten the scene of Jesus holding the young boy in His arms? Had the words Jesus had spoken to them simply gone in one ear and out the other?

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” – Mark9:37 ESV

Yet here was Jesus having to rebuke His disciples for their arrogant display of moral superiority. They didn’t get it. They were still harboring their own false conceptions about status in the Kingdom. In their eyes, these children were non-contributors. They had nothing to offer. They were takers, not givers. But Jesus had a completely different perspective. And to the shock and dismay of the disciples, Jesus “took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them” (Mark 10:16 NLT).

The disciples had been right. These “little ones” had nothing to offer Jesus. But Jesus had something to give them: His divine blessing. They came before Jesus as helpless and hopeless children, most likely carried in the arms of their parents. Some were probably too young to walk or talk. But each one, regardess of their age, intellect, family background, or future prospects of success; received the same undeserved gift from the hand of Jesus. Each was touched and blessed by the Son of God.

The Kingdom of God will not be comprised of the successful, gifted, morally exceptional, intellectually superior, or socially acceptable. In fact, Paul reminds every Christ-follower that their adoption into the family of God had nothing to do with them. They brought nothing to the table. They had done nothing to deserve the grace and mercy shown to them by God.

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

Jesus had repeatedly shown His disciples that He had come to minister to the weak, the helpless, and the hopeless. He had gone out of His way to heal the sick and to minister to the outcasts and socially unacceptable. He had exposed the hypocrisy of the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel. He had willingly associated with tax collectors and prostitutes. And yet, His disciples still struggled with thoughts of their own superiority and harbored hopes of earning a place of honor and distinction in His coming Kingdom. But the lessons would continue, right up until the end. Even in the upper room on the night Jesus would be betrayed, He would provide them with yet another illustration of humility and service by washing their feet. And ultimately, Jesus would perform the greatest act of humility by offering His life as a ransom for many. The greatest of all would become the least of all so that the foolish, the powerless, the despised, and the unimportant might become children of God.

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 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

Filling in the Blanks

20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

22 And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. 24 For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. 32 Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. 34 I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” 37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” – Luke 17:20-37 ESV

This section contains a fascinating and somewhat confusing series of lessons on the kingdom of God. From the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus had declared the good news regarding the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:14-15 ESV

Jesus was declaring that He was the Messiah or Savior the prophets had written about. He was the son of David who would ascend to the throne and re-establish the Davidic dynasty in keeping with the covenant God had made with David (2 Samuel 7:11-16). And this message struck a chord with the people of Israel because they had been longing for the arrival of the warrior-king who would be their emancipator, releasing them from their subjugation to the Romans. For centuries, the Israelites had been waiting for God to send the next David, a man whom He would use to redeem His people and restore their fortunes as a nation. So, everywhere Jesus went, His words concerning the kingdom were met with joyous expectation and hope.

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread – Matthew 4:23-24 ESV

But the longer Jesus’ ministry went on, some of the people began to have doubts about His message. While they were amazed by His miracles and blown away by the power of His words, they were disappointed that He had not done anything to establish His earthly kingdom. If He truly was the long-awaited Messiah, when was He going to turn His attention to the Romans and clean house? How were they supposed to believe He was who He claimed to be if He never did the things the Messiah was supposed to do? This led many to demand that Jesus perform a “sign from heaven” to validate His identity. Yes, He had healed many people, but there were others who did the same thing – even His own disciples. He had cast out demons, but that was nothing new. Even the Jews had their own exorcists who were known for doing the same thing.

In fact, on one occasion, Jesus cast out a demon from a man and the people immediately proclaimed, “Nothing like this has ever happened in Israel!” (Matthew 9:33 NLT). But the Pharisees rejected their enthusiastic endorsement of Jesus, saying, “He can cast out demons because he is empowered by the prince of demons” (Matthew 9:34 NLT). And to prove their point, these men “demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority” (Luke 11:16 NLT). Their refusal to accept Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah led them to constantly demand that He provide them with some kind of heavenly sign as irrefutable proof.

One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.” – Matthew 12:38 NLT

So, it should come as no surprise that Luke records yet another confrontation between Jesus and this religious leader where they demand that He perform a sign. But this time, their request is hidden behind a question regarding the kingdom of God. They ask Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” (Luke 17:20 NLT). This question wreaks of sarcasm. In essence, they are ridiculing Jesus for having declared that the kingdom had come, but they could see no signs of its arrival. He was still nothing more than an itinerant Rabbi wandering around the countryside teaching, preaching, and performing the occasional miracle. He spent more time in Galilee than He did in Judea, where Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel was located. He had many followers, but no army. And while He had cast out a handful of demons, He had done nothing to get rid of the Roman centurions who occupied the land of Israel from north to south. If He was the Messiah, they wanted proof. When was He going to do something to usher in the kingdom He claimed to have brought?

But Jesus saw through their ploy and understand the real focus of their question. They wanted some kind of sign that Jesus was the warrior-king who was going to conquer the enemies of Israel and re-establish the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. And it seems unlikely that these men were expecting Jesus to fulfill their demand for a sign, because they believed Him to be a fraud. To them, He was little more than a charlatan and anything but the Savior of Israel. Yet, Jesus responded to their question.

“The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” – Luke 17:20-21 NLT

Jesus knew what they wanted. They were demanding that He do something that would affirm His kingly role and prove that He had been ordained by God to be the next ruler over Israel. Like all the Jews, the Pharisees and scribes were expecting the Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom that mirrored the glory days of David and Solomon. And Jesus knew that they were looking for visible, tangible signs that would demonstrate He meant business. As far as they could see, there was absolutely no evidence that would suggest He was a king, by any stretch of the imagination. But Jesus informed them that the nature of the Kingdom of God was radically different than what they had been expecting. In fact, the kingdom was already in their midst. The King was standing right in front of them. But Jesus didn’t look like a king. He didn’t do kingly things. At least, not according to their understanding of the role.

But it is interesting to note what the psalmist wrote concerning David.

He [God]chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
    to shepherd Jacob his people,
    Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
    and guided them with his skillful hand. – Psalm 78:70-72 ESV

The Jews were expecting another David, a warrior-king who would destroy the enemies of Israel. But God had spoken of David as the shepherd-king who cared for the people of Israel. Jesus had come to seek and to save that which was lost. His first advent to earth was intended to bring a different kind of victory over a completely different kind of enemy. Jesus had come to conquer sin, death, and the grave. His coming had inaugurated a different kind of kingdom that would not be of this world. What the Jews failed to understand was that the Messiah’s mission would come in two parts. There would be a first advent and, when the time was right, it would be followed by a second one.

And this is where Jesus turns His attention to His disciples, in an attempt to help them understand the full scope of the divine redemptive plan. Even they were beginning to have doubts about Jesus’ identity and role. They were just as anxious for Him to set up His earthly kingdom, and they were having a difficult time understanding the apparent delay in what they believed to be the primary point of His mission.

Jesus informs His disciples about future events that will need to take place before His earthly kingdom can be established. In the days ahead, He will die, resurrect, and return to His Father’s side in heaven. And after His departure, they will long for His return.

“The time is coming when you will long to see the day when the Son of Man returns, but you won’t see it. – Luke 17:22 NLT

With the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, the church age began. The kingdom of God will exist in its partial form through the lives of all those who, through placing their faith in Christ, become citizens of that kingdom. They will live their lives on earth as sojourners and strangers. But one day, Christ will return for His bride, the church. He will gather up all those are citizens of the kingdom and take them to be with Him in heaven. That will usher in the days of Tribulation – a period of great suffering and persecution on earth when the enemy will focus all his wrath on the nation of Israel. During that time, many will come to faith in Christ and even suffer martyrdom at the hands of Satan’s earthly proxy, the Antichrist. But at the end of that seven-year period of time, Jesus will return. This will be His Second Coming when He appears as the warrior-king with the armies of heaven beside Him, and He will defeat all the enemies of God and judge all those who have rejected God and His Son.

At that time, there will be two groups of people on earth: Believers and non-believers. And Jesus indicates that the destruction will be severe. But those who have come to faith in Christ during the days of the Tribulation will be spared. That is what He means when He says, “I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:34-35 ESV). People will be caught completely by surprise. They will be going about their lives, “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building” (Luke 17:28 ESV), and then, suddenly, the King will return.

And it will be after this apocalyptic event that Jesus will set up His earthly kingdom and rule from the throne of David in Jerusalem for 1,000 years. The sign the Pharisees were demanding was one they really didn’t want to see. The kingdom for which the disciples longed would eventually come, but not during their lifetimes. God has a plan and He is working that plan to perfection. And the first phase of the plan required that His Son come to earth as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT). It will be at His second advent that He comes as the Lion of Judah and conquers the enemies of God and re-establishes the rule and reign of God on earth.

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

Seeking and Saving the Lost

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”– Luke 17:11-19 ESV

At this point in his narrative, Luke reminds the reader that, despite all the recent delays and seeming distractions,  Jesus remained committed to going to Jerusalem. Up to this moment, Jesus had been in Judea, slowly making His way to His final destination. But Luke reports that, for some undisclosed reason, Jesus decided to take a detour, passing back through Samaria and all the way to its northern border with Galilee.

Luke’s placement of this real-life story at this point in his gospel account is intentional because it provides a direct link to a couple of Jesus’ parables recorded back in chapter 15. One involved a shepherd who searched for a missing sheep, while the other described a woman who diligently searched for a single lost coin.  Jesus told both of these parables in order to expose the hardened and uncaring hearts of the Pharisees. These men, who were supposed to be the spiritual shepherds of Israel, showed no compassion or concern for those whom they deemed to be sinners. The members of the Pharisees, Sadduccees, and other religious sects of Israel had become an exclusive society of spiritual elitists who looked down their noses at the poor, uneducated, and less fortunate. They had even deemed Jesus and his raggamuffin band of Galilean disciples to be little more than country bumpkins who attracted a motley blend of societal rejects, moral reprobates, and religious rejects. But Jesus took every opportunity to expose these men as hypocrites whose attitudes and actions stood opposed to the divine purposes of God.

In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus told of a shepherd who, while leading his flock of 100 sheep through the wilderness, discovered that one had gone missing. It had somehow wandered away from the fold. At this point in the parable, Jesus posed the question: “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). To those living in an agrarian society, the answer to this question was obvious. The shepherd would risk everything to find that one lost sheep. But notice that Jesus describes the shepherd as leaving “the ninety-nine others in the wilderness” in order to find the one missing sheep. In this parable, the 99 sheep are meant to represent the Pharisees. They believed themselves to be the select sheep of Yahweh’s flock. They were pristine, pure, and spiritually healthy. But in the story, the shepherd leaves those sheep in the wilderness and turns his sole attention on the one missing sheep. And when he finds it, he returns and announces his discovery with great fanfare and joy. But Jesus discloses the real point of His story.

“I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.” – Luke 15:7 NET

This statement was meant as an unflattering slam of the Pharisees. They wrongly believed themselves to be righteous and in no need of repentance. In their minds, they were already right with God and had no need of a Savior. But Jesus exposes their faulty self-assessment. In the long run, it was they who were really lost, wandering in the wilderness of their prideful self-righteousness.

The second parable Jesus told involved a woman who discovered that one of her ten Greek coins was missing. Like the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, this woman instigated a desperate search of her home in an attempt to find that one missing coin. Its recovery was important to her. And Jesus indicated that her diligent search resulted in a positive outcome, causing her to declare her joy to her neighbors and friends. Then Jesus reveals that point of His story.

“In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” – Luke 15:10 NLT

The woman turned her attention away from the nine “non-lost” coins in order to discover the whereabouts of the one that was missing. What’s fascinating about this story is that Jesus seems to describe the lost coin as the sinner who repents of his sins and returns to its rightful place. But it was the woman who sought out the coin, not the other way around. Once again, Jesus was attempting to expose the uncaring nature of the Pharisees. They failed to share God’s love for sinners because they refused to admit that they were sinners themselves. But a few chapters later in his gospel, Luke records an encounter that Jesus had with a man named Zacchaeus, whom Luke describes as “the chief tax collector in the region” (Luke 19:2 NLT). Much to the disgust of the Jews, Jesus decided to share a meal with his notorious sinner, and He would later shock the self-righteous and prideful religious leaders by announcing, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost” (Luke 19:9-10 NLT).

Jesus, unlike the Pharisees and other religious leaders, was dedicated to seeking the lost and offering them God’s unmerited gift of salvation. That was why He had come to earth in the first place. And Jesus repeatedly went out of His way to go where the sinners were. He spent His time in places like Galilee, far from the environs of Jerusalem where the religious leaders sat in the wealthy homes and enjoyed the perks that came with their privileged positions. Jesus even made forays into the region of Samaria, ministering to those whom the Jews considered little more than dogs and considered to be impure and idolatrous half-breeds.

So, that is what makes this surprising detour by Jesus so significant. He had been on His way to Jerusalem, the headquarters of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jewish religious leaders, when all of the sudden, He turned away and headed back into no-man’s land – the despised region of Samaria. Luke describes that Jesus traveled all the way to its northern border with Galilee, where He entered a village and was immediately confronted by ten men who suffered from the dreaded disease of leprosy. Notice how many men there were: Ten. How many coins did the woman in Jesus’ parable have? Ten. I don’t believe this is merely an interesting coincidence. This dramatic real-life encounter was meant to be a living illustration to Jesus’ disciples of all that He had been trying to teach them.

Upon seeing Jesus, all ten men cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13 ESV). They each shared the same common problem: leprosy. And none of them could do anything about it. As a result of this devasting and potentially deadly disease, they were social outcasts and even prevented from participating in services at the local synagogue. These men were all equally despised, rejected, and hopeless. So, in their desperation, they called out to Jesus for help. And He responded. But notice what Jesus did. Rather than immediately heal them, He gave them instructions.

“Go and show yourselves to the priests.” – Luke 17:14 ESV

Jesus gave them something to do. At this point, they each remain infected with the disease. Nothing has changed. But Luke reports that “as they went they were cleansed” (Luke 17:14 ESV). They received their healing as they faithfully obeyed the command of Jesus. Even before they made it all the way to the priest, they received the mercy they had requested. But what happened next is revealing and the point of the whole story.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. – Luke 17:15 ESV

Don’t miss this. All ten of the men received healing, but only one of them returned to thank Jesus for what He had done. The other nine would have immediately recognized the miraculous change that had come over their bodies. They too would have experienced the inexpressible joy of finding themselves completely healed and whole for the first time in a long time. But only one seems to have recognized that his healing had been the work of Jesus. It almost appears as if the others believed themselves to be the source of their miraculous transformation. They had received a command and had obeyed it. It was their faithful obedience that had led to their healing – or so they must have speculated. But one man knew that he had someone to thank for his remarkable restoration. And that man just happened to be a Samaritan.

The fact that Luke points out this man’s ethnic identity is critical to the story. It seems to suggest that the other nine men were all Jews. They were card-carrying members of the Hebrew race. But not a single one of them was willing to give Jesus credit for his healing. They simply walked away.

What’s interesting to consider is that this one man, a Samaritan, had suffered a double liability. He was both a leper and a Samaritan. He was avoided for his disease and despised for his ethnic identity. And even after receiving healing from leprosy, he would remain a member of a people group whom the Jews considered sub-human and undeserving of sympathy and love.

And Jesus points out the obvious when He asks, “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18 NLT). Nine had received mercy but had refused to give God glory. Only one man took the effort to return and express his gratitude to Jesus and offer praise to God the Father. 

At this point, Jesus makes a fascinating statement that requires some unpacking. He responds to the Samaritan by stating, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19 ESV). The Greek word in this passage is sōzō and it conveys the idea of wholeness. What Jesus seems to be implying is that this one man received more than just healing from a disease. Each of the others had also been healed. But this one man, by returning and expressing glory to God and gratitude to Jesus, had received wholeness of life. This despised member of the Samaritan race didn’t just receive physical healing, but he was spiritually restored to a right relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In obeying the words of Jesus, the other nine men had exhibited a form of faith. But because they refused to express glory to God or gratitude to Jesus, it appears that they saw their healing as somehow their doing. They had obeyed and, as a result, they had been healed. But sadly, their physical healing was the only reward that they received. They had been healed but had not been made whole.

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

Faith, Forgiveness, and Fruitfulness

1 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” – Luke 17:1-6 ESV

Jesus has been unrelenting in His judgment of the Pharisees. He has castigated them relentlessly and even accused them of refusing the heed the words of their own Scriptures.

“…they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” – Luke 16:31 NLT

Their hatred for Jesus had reached such a fevered pitch that they had become incapable of recognizing Him as being the fulfillment of all that the law and the prophets foretold. Jesus was the Son of God, making Him not only the law-giver, but the perfect law-keeper. In His sermon on the mount, He declared of Himself:

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.” – Mathew 5:17-18 NLT

But while the Pharisees and their fellow religious leaders were outwardly committed to the law, they failed to recognize Jesus as its fulfillment. And their rejection of Him was causing others to question the validity of His identity and mission.  After all, if the religious leaders of Israel refused to accept Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, maybe He wasn’t really  who He claimed to be. Perhaps He did cast out demons by the power of Satan. Maybe He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, leading the gullible and the innocent to fall for His cleverly disguised lies. But Jesus had refuted these accusations, arguing, “if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you” (Matthew 12:28 NLT).

Jesus would later accuse the Pharisees of acting as road blocks to the good news of the kingdom. It was one thing for them to reject Jesus as the Messiah, but it was another altogether for them to persuade others to turn down God’s gracious offer of salvation and entrance into the kingdom.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. – Matthew 23:13 NLT

But as Luke begins this section of his gospel, he portrays Jesus focusing His attention off of the religious leaders and on to His followers. He wants them to understand that they too can become stumbling blocks to the gospel. They all ran the risk of losing hope in His identity as the Messiah. The days were coming when the pressure against Jesus would reach a fever pitch and He would become the focal point of the Pharisees’ rage and the enemy’s wrath. Satan was going to unleash his entire arsenal of weapons against the Son of God, all in a last-ditch effort to thwart the redemptive plan of God.

Even on the very night when Jesus would share His final Passover meal with the disciples, they would get into an argument over which of them was the greatest. This would take place after He washed their feet and described the death He was about to endure. And then, Jesus would turn to Simon and deliver what had to have come across as a rather a disturbing message:

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.” – Luke 22:31-32 NLT

Simon was going to be tempted. He would find himself faced with the choice of admitting His relationship with Jesus or denying it to save his own skin. He would choose the latter. In doing so, Peter sinned. He let his fear of men overcome His faith in Jesus. But in Luke 17, Jesus encourages His disciples by acknowledging the reality of the temptations they would face. He knew the days ahead would be difficult and filled with opportunities to turn their back on Him. Even on the night when Jesus was arrested, Mark records that “all his disciples deserted him and ran away” (Mark 14:50 NLT).

The days ahead would be filled with temptations to turn their back on Him, and all of them would dessert Him in some form or fashion. Only Peter and John would follow Him to His trials. Of all the disciples, only John is described as being at His crucifixion. But Jesus wanted these men to know that their abandonment of Him would be forgiven. Their loss of faith would not be held against them. But if their lack of faith caused another to reject Jesus, the consequences would be serious.

The context is critical to understanding this passage. Jesus had been hammering away at the religious leaders and their lack of compassion for the people. These arrogant and prideful men viewed themselves as spiritual superior to everyone else. And in their highly educated and religiously savvy opinion, they deemed Jesus to be a fraud and phony. He was a wannabe Messiah who lacked the proper credentials, pedigree, and education to serve in such a prestigious and prominent role. And these men were leading others to sin against God by rejecting His anointed Messiah.

So, Jesus was warning His disciples to not follow the example of the Pharisees. In the days, ahead, when things got dark and all looked lost, he wanted to them to remain faithful and not allow their doubts to cause others to dismiss Him as Savior. And He gave them some sobering words to consider:

It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin.” – Luke 17:2 NLT

He forewarns them: “So watch yourselves!” (Luke 17:3 NLT). Things were about to get dark and deadly. His earthly mission was going to culminate with His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. But it would be followed by His miraculous resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. And despite of His victory over death and the grave, the temptations would continue for the disciples. That is why He continues to encourage them to live in a constant state of preparedness, because the enemy was defeated but far from dead. Satan would continue to attack the disciples long after Jesus was gone. They would face ongoing temptations to sin and would need to avail themselves of the forgiveness Jesus made possible by His death on the cross.

Sometime after Jesus had returned to His Father’s side in heaven, the apostle John would later:

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:8-10 NLT

Forgiveness would be an ongoing commodity because sin would be an ever-present reality. Jesus’ death provided the payment for mankind’s sin debt, but it did not eradicate the danger of sin’s presence. That’s why Jesus warned His disciples:

“If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.” – Luke 17:3-4 NLT

When Jesus departed from earth, He left His disciples on their own, but He did not leave them defenseless and helpless. He provided them with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. He promised His disciples that He would not leave them as orphans, alone and on their own. No, He assured them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you” (John 14:16 NLT). The Holy Spirit would provide them with all the power they needed to fulfill the Great Commission and survive in a hostile environment in which the enemy still “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 1:8 ESV). The tempter, though defeated,  would still be alive and well and working overtime to distract and destroy the followers of Christ. Temptations would come. Believers would sin. And forgiveness would need to be extended.

All this talk about temptation, trials, sin, and forgiveness left the disciples wondering if they were up to the task. In their simplistic way of thinking, they believed they would need additional faith in order to survive what was coming their way. They didn’t want to flake out or run the risk of causing a brother or sister to stumble. So, they asked Jesus to increase their faith. It was like asking for more energy to survive a particularly strenuous task. But Jesus pointed out that it was not the quantity of their faith that mattered. Nor was it a matter of quality.

“If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘May you be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you! – Luke 17:7 NLT

To the disciples, faith was the missing ingredient. But in their defense, on more than one occasion, they had heard Jesus say, “O you of little faith” (Matthew 6:30; 8:26; 14:31). That sounds like a declaration of need or an accusation of lack. In their minds, they simply presumed that more faith was the answer. But the amount of faith is not the issue here. It is the object of our faith that matters. A little faith placed in the right source will produce staggering results. It was Paul expressed in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Jesus was going to ensure that they had all the strength they needed to endure what they were destined to face as His disciples. And Jesus would later assure His disciples that they would have all the faith, power, strength, wisdom, and words they needed to accomplish even greater works than He had done.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!” – John 14:12-14 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

A Simple Story with a Sobering Message

18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” – Luke 16:18-31 ESV

At first glance, this section of Luke 16 seems to come out of left field. It appears to lack any context. There has been no change of venue or scene, and yet, suddenly and unexpectedly, Jesus starts talking about divorce, adultery, remarriage, and the law. But the key to understanding this apparent shift in topic is found in verse 15, where Jesus pointedly addresses His adversaries, the Pharisees, brusquely pointing out the nature of their problem:

You are the ones who justify yourselves in men’s eyes, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly prized among men is utterly detestable in God’s sight.” – Luke 16:15 NET

Jesus had just disclosed that it is impossible to serve God and money at the same time. Whoever tries will “will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Luke 16:13 NLT). And the Pharisees, whom Luke reports “dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him” (Luke 16:14 NLT). They found Jesus’ parable about the dishonest manager to be ridiculous and His comments concerning unrighteous wealth and true riches to be laughable. Obviously, his poor and uneducated Rabbi from Nazareth had not been blessed with great wealth as they had. They believed their superior social standing to be a direct reward for their faithful obedience to God’s commands.

But Jesus won’t let them take the high ground. He exposed them for what they really are: Men who love money, covet the praise of men, and pride themselves on being the spiritual elite of Israel. Their apparent allegiance to the law was simply a means to an end. It earned them the awe and reverence of the masses. They were looked upon as the religious rock stars of their day, holy men who lived in perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law. Yet Jesus knew the truth. These pious religious leaders spent far too much time justifying themselves in the eyes of men when they should have been worrying about what God thought about them.

Earlier, Jesus had given His disciples a sobering warning concerning the Pharisees.

“Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy. The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all.” – Luke 12:1-2 NLT

Their true natures would eventually be revealed for all to see. Their cleverly disguised hatred for Jesus would come to light when they forcefully arrested Him and dragged Him before Pilate, the Roman governor. There they would level false accusations against Him, demanding that Jesus be put to death for posing a threat against the Roman government. It was all be based on lies, but they would eventually convince Pilate to crucify Jesus. But Jesus, knowing exactly what the Pharisees had planned for Him, told His disciples, “don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that. But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear” (Luke 12:4-5 NLT). And that same warning applied to the Pharisees. That’s why they needed to show far greater concern about God’s assessment of their lives, rather than trying to impress their peers and the peasants.

Back to Luke 16. Beginning in verse 14, Jesus exposes the Pharisees’ lack of understanding of what is taking place right in front of their eyes. The kingdom of God that the law and the prophets predicted has appeared in their midst. Jesus, the Messiah of Israel has come to earth, and His arrival has inaugurated a new age.

“The law and the prophets were in force until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urged to enter it.” – Luke 16:16 NET

In a sense, John the Baptist was the last of the old-school prophets. He came proclaiming the coming of the kingdom.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 3:2 ESV

But John, like all the prophets before him, added a message of judgment.

“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10 ESV

John called the people to be baptized, and he clarified that it was intended to illustrate their willingness to turn from their sinful ways. He even told the Pharisees to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). John believed that Jesus, in His role as the long-awaited Messiah, would be bringing judgment.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:11-12 ESV

But Jesus had come to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). He had told His disciples that His incarnation had been intended to make salvation available to those who already stood condemned before God.

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” – John 12:46-48 ESV

Jesus was offering sinful men and women a means of finding favor with God that was not based on human effort. The law of God had never been intended to provide salvation. According to the apostle Paul, the law was “given…to show people their sins” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). In his letter to the Romans, Paul expands on this thought by adding, “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT). 

All of this helps us better understand what Jesus is saying in the closing verses of Luke 16. He is attempting to explain the significance of His incarnation. He is the king of Israel whom the prophets and the law foretold, and He has brought His kingdom or, better yet, His kingly right to rule. He is the Son of God and the anointed Savior of the world. And everything He is doing and will do is in fulfillment of the law and prophets. That is why He declared, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:18 ESV). Nothing and no one was going to stand in His way – not even the Pharisees. Jesus was faithfully fulfilling the will of His Heavenly Father. And, even after His resurrection, He would tell His disciples:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” – Luke 24:44 ESV

Yet, while Jesus was busy fulfilling the law, the Pharisees were doing it great harm. They were adding to it and creating loopholes for it. They were constantly coming up with ways to make its observance easier by designing clever workarounds. Even its clear teaching regarding divorce and remarriage had been diluted through their efforts. Adultery had become commonplace and the Pharisees had played a major role in justifying its ubiquitous existence among the Jews. This led Jesus to reiterate God’s unwavering outlook regarding divorce.

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. – Luke 16:18 ESV

Then Jesus followed this up with a rather interesting story. One of the first things we need to understand is that this story is descriptive and not intended to be prescriptive. In other words, Jesus is not teaching a doctrinal truth about heaven and hell, this life or the afterlife. He is simply telling a story designed to expose the erroneous beliefs of the Pharisees. They are represented in the story by the rich man who enjoyed great wealth in this life. But he proved to be uncaring and uncompassionate to the needy in his midst. In fact, every day he callously overlooked the sorry state of a poor man named Lazarus. In the story, both men die, and that’s where it gets interesting. Contrary to the common view among the Jews of Jesus’ day, the poor man ends up in heaven, while the rich man finds himself suffering in Hades. This would have been a shock to everyone that heard the story, and that was Jesus’ intent.

The rich man, stunned at this unexpected turn of events, begged God to show him mercy. And notice that he asks that God send Lazarus to do for him what he had refused to do for Lazarus all those years. Now that he was suffering, he wanted Lazarus to relieve his anguish. But God gave the rich man some very bad news.

“Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish.” – Luke 16:25 NLT

As stated earlier, this parable is not meant to be a treatise on heaven and hell. Jesus was not suggesting that there are lines of communication between Hades and heaven. Jesus does not tell us how the rich man knew that Lazarus was in heaven because that is not the point of his story. The point of the story is found in its closing verses, where Jesus brings back up the law and the prophets.

“Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.’” – Luke 16:27-29 ESV

The law contained all they needed to know about the treatment of the needy and oppressed. And the prophets had more than clarified what God would do to all those who chose to disobey His laws. The rich man’s brothers stood condemned because they refused to obey.

But, unswayed by the words of Abraham, the rich man continued to beg, stating, “if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God” (Luke 16:30 NLT). And this is where Jesus drives home the real point of his story.

“But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” – Luke 16:31 NLT

Subtly, but oh so clearly, Jesus reveals the underlying problem of the Pharisees. They were so arrogantly confident in their standing before God, that they refused to heed the warnings of Scripture. Jesus, the Son of God, stood before them and they refused to acknowledge Him. And even when He died and rose again, they would still reject His claims to be the Messiah.

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