An Alien and Undeserved Righteousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, Jesus dropped the bombshell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unworthy, Yet Rewarded Servants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus continued to reiterate this seemingly aberrant admonition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Eternal Reward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And He went on to add:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus ends His parable by encouraging faithfulness.

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal Son and the Prideful Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ninety-and-Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected and Undeserving Guests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timeless Tips On Social Etiquette

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” – Luke 14:7-14 ESV

Jesus is attending a dinner party hosted by a ruler of the Pharisees. The dinner just happened to be scheduled for the Sabbath and it just happened that a man who suffered from dropsy was also on the invitation list. That the host of the party invited a ceremonially unclean man into his home on the Sabbath seems a bit odd, and gives the appearance that the whole affair was a setup. The dinner invite was simply another attempt by the religious leaders to entrap Jesus. They were hoping Jesus would violate the Sabbath laws by healing the man, and He did not disappoint. But before performing the miracle, Jesus asked the host and his fellow Pharisees to give their legal opinion on the matter.

“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” – Luke 14:3 ESV

When they refused to answer His question, Jesus revealed His own opinion on the matter by graciously delivering the man from his dreaded disease. Then, after sending the man away, Jesus turned His attention to the other guests who had also received invitations to the dinner. Luke makes it clear that the room was filled with “lawyers and Pharisees” (Luke 14:3 ESV), who had been invited for the sole purpose of serving as “expert” witnesses when Jesus inevitably broke the laws concerning performing work on the Sabbath. Jesus had knowingly given these men the evidence for which they had been looking. But as the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8), Jesus viewed His actions as perfectly acceptable and commendable to God. He was operating according to His Father’s will, and simply emulating His Father’s heart.

“…the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” – John 5:19 NLT

“…my judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will.” – John 5:30 NLT

Jesus was walking in step with His Heavenly Father. But the same could not be said for the religious leaders who reclined around the table that day. The meal they were sharing with Jesus was about the only point of commonality between them and the Lord of the Sabbath. He was holy, righteous, and in complete alignment with God, while they were marked by hypocrisy, legalism, and stood in direct opposition to the very One whom God had sent.

On an earlier occasion in His ministry, Jesus had been the guest at another meal, this time in the home of Matthew, a notorious tax collector. “But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with such scum?’” (Luke 5:30 NLT). To which Jesus had responded, “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 and need to repent” (Luke 5:31-32 NLT).

Jesus had chosen to share a meal with Matthew and his fellow tax collectors because they were just the kind of people He had come to save. In fact, Jesus had just called Matthew to be one of His disciples. The only difference between Matthew and the Pharisees who considered him to be scum was the fact that Matthew recognized his sinful state and his desperate need for a Savior. The Pharisees had an overinflated sense of their own spiritual superiority. They looked down on people like Matthew and found Jesus’ decision to associate with him to be evidence of either a lack of discernment or proof of His own sinfulness.

But Jesus was always a step ahead of His enemies. He knew that His healing of the man with dropsy had given them the proof for which they had been looking. But rather than panic and room from the room, Jesus told them a parable. He took advantage of the opportunity to teach His disciples a much-needed lesson in social etiquette. But this was meant to be more than a primer on proper behavior. It was designed to expose the hearts of His accusers. Jesus wanted His disciples to stop admiring the Pharisees and see them for who they really were: egotistical and self-centered social climbers who loved the praises of men more than they cared about pleasing God.

Jesus used the setting of a wedding feast to convey an important lesson regarding pride and humility. Knowing the predisposition of His audience, Jesus warned against seeking the seat of honor at a wedding feast. Doing so, uninvited, could result in embarrassment. Someone who would arrogantly and presumptuously occupy the seat of honor might find themselves publicly humiliated when the host of the feast forced them to give up their seat to a more worthy guest. According to Jesus, humility would be a far better strategy.

“Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests.” – Luke 14:10 NLT

And Jesus explains why this strategy made more sense.

“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 14:11 NLT

Like all parables, this simple story had a much more profound lesson contained within it. Jesus was dealing with far more than socially acceptable behavior at a wedding. He was exposing the stubborn refusal of the Pharisees to acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior. Their pride and arrogance had resulted in an attitude of spiritual superiority. They considered themselves to be the religious elite of Israel, fully deserving of God’s favor and guaranteed a place in His future kingdom. But, according to Jesus, the only fate they could count would be far different than what they expected.

“I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! And I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 8:10-12 NLT

Everyone in the room that day had been jockeying for position. They all wanted to be seen as the most important person in the room. But Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that, in the kingdom, humility was the key to exaltation. And this was a lesson He had been trying to convey to them ever since He delivered His sermon on the mount.

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
    for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble,
    for they will inherit the whole earth.” – Matthew 5:3-5 NLT

On that occasion, Jesus had gone on to warn His audience, “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:20 NLT). The kind of righteousness God was looking for was not performance-based and regulated by strict adherence to some set of moral standards. It began in the heart. And it was based on a humble acknowledgment of one’s sin and the need for a righteousness that was impossible to self-produce.

The actions of the Pharisees were nothing more than attempts at behavior modification. But all their efforts to appear righteous were no more effective than someone who whitewashed a tomb. Despite the outer display of purity, the inside would still be full of death and decay. No attempt at self-manufactured righteousness was going to be enough to earn entrance into God’s Kingdom.

Next, Jesus turned His attention to His host, the ruler of the Pharisees who had put together this sham dinner party. And Jesus gave him a bit of friendly advice designed to expose the true intentions of his heart.

“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. – Luke 14:12 NLT

This man was a social climber who was always thinking about his status in society. He did nothing out of humility or selflessness. Even his dinner invitations were carefully calculated to enhance his standing within the community. Everything he did was based on its ROI (return on investment). His modus operandi was purely selfish and motivated by greed, not goodness. But Jesus was wired differently. He viewed life as an opportunity to give Himself away. That’s why He said of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NLT). And Jesus told this man that a life of humility, service, and sacrifice would be far more rewarding in the long run.

“Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” – Luke 14:13-14 NLT

Once again, this simple message was one the disciples had heard Jesus deliver during His sermon on the mount.

“Watch out! 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

But as will become readily apparent, Jesus’ message would go over the heads of His audience. They would fail to hear what He had to say. The Pharisees and scribes were so motivated by pride and arrogance, that the words of this humble Rabbi from Nazareth would escape them.

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 Lesson in Leastness

But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”

49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” – Luke 9:44-50 ESV

Jesus has made His destiny quite clear to His disciples.

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Luke 9:22 ESV

But these men found Jesus’ admission to be unfathomable. Peter found them to be unacceptable and even admonished Jesus for saying such things (Mark 8:33). Peter had just confessed Jesus to be “the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20), the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, and Jesus had affirmed his answer. Yet, Peter had been shocked to hear Jesus talking about His coming suffering, rejection, and death. None of that made sense to Peter and his companions. There was no place in their concept of the coming King of Israel for martyrdom. They were looking for a Messiah who would rule and reign, not suffer and die. Peter found the prospect of Jesus’ death to be unacceptable and even called on God to forbid it. And he presumptuously and boldly proclaimed His intention to prevent it. But this exchange earned Peter a stern rebuke from Jesus and a not-to-flattering comparison with Satan. According to Jesus, Peter was guilty of “seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s” (Mark 8:33 NLT). And while Peter had been the only one of the 12 bold enough to  speak his mind, the rest shared his perspective. None of these men could understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. For Peter, James, and John, the transfiguration of Jesus only added to their confusion. This remarkable event had further confirmed for them Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. They had personally witnessed His glorification, His conversation with Moses and Elijah, and had heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35 ESV).

And all of the disciples had just watched Jesus display the power of God by casting out an unclean spirit from of a young boy. This was not the first time the disciples had seen a demon-possessed person set free. In fact, they had just recently returned from their first ministry assignment where they had each experienced the very same power.

And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. – Mark 6:13 ESV

But the nine disciples who had remained behind while Jesus, Peter, James, and John were on the mount of transfiguration, had repeatedly tried to cast the demon out of the boy but had failed. We can only conjecture what had happened because the gospel authors do not provide us with the details. But suffice it to say that these men must have displayed a confident assurance when the boy’s father approached them, begging them to free his son. After all, they had already proven they could cast out demons. So, they must have been shocked when their efforts failed. And it’s likely that they each took a turn trying to cast out the unclean spirit, only to meet the same fate as the man before them.

But when Jesus successfully exorcised the demon, the people marveled at the power of God. They recognized that what Jesus had just done had been a display of divine enablement. He was operating according to the power and authority of God Almighty. And as the people stood back in awe and amazement, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44 ESV). 

The timing of Jesus’ statement is significant. He had just displayed His God-ordained power over the demonic realm by delivering a young boy from possession. And yet, now He was telling the disciples that He would be delivered into the hands of men. To the disciples, all of Jesus’ talk of suffering, rejection, and death was a sign of weakness, not power. The Messiah they had longed for would be a conqueror and a king, meting out justice and judgment on all those who stood as enemies of God and His chosen people. But Jesus had just displayed His power over demons and then confessed that He would be delivered over to men.

What these men failed to understand was that this was all part of God’s divine plan. None of this was about a lack of power. Jesus had just proven that He had more than enough power to conquer the enemies of God. This was all about obedience and faith. Jesus was demonstrating His unwavering commitment to accomplish the will of His Heavenly Father. Jesus was not a victim. He was not at the mercy of wicked men. He was the all-powerful Son of God who could command demons, calm storms, heal the sick, and even raise the dead. But because His Father’s plan included His own suffering, rejection, and death, Jesus was ready, willing, and able to obey.

But Luke reveals that the disciples were unable to comprehend what Jesus was saying.

it was concealed from them. – Luke 9:45 ESV

Jesus was speaking plainly, but their hearts were incapable of comprehending what He was saying. This was partly due to their lack of faith, but it was also the result of God’s divine determination to conceal the truth from them. They were not quite ready to know what God had in store. All of this was a shock to their preconceived ideas concerning the Messiah. And even though Jesus was speaking openly and honestly, God was not allowing them to discern the full import of His words. It was not time yet.

And Luke indicates that “they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (Luke 9:45 ESV). This was uncharacteristic of the disciples because they were always asking Jesus questions. They did so all the time. But they were afraid of knowing the truth, so they kept their mouths shut. As the old saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Little did they know that they were on their way to Jerusalem, where everything was going to take place, just as Jesus had predicted. They could ignore the topic, but it was not going away.

What’s fascinating is that this disclosure by Jesus concerning His future fate was followed by a heated debate between the disciples “as to which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46 ESV). Here was Jesus letting them know that He was going to suffer, be rejected, and die, and yet they were arguing over which of them was the greatest. Little did they know that Jesus was fully aware of their topic of conversation. He knew their hearts, and He used this opportunity to teach them another valuable lesson on the reality of His mission and their misguided understanding of His kingdom. 

Now, before we paint the disciples as egotistical and self-centered powermongers, let’s look at the facts. They had been handpicked by Jesus. They were His chosen followers and had been given authority by Jesus to cast out demons. When Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus had said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). And Peter, James, and John had been chosen by Jesus to witness His transfiguration. So, these men were somewhat justified in thinking that they would play important roles in Jesus’ coming kingdom.

The problem was that they were arguing over which one of them was the greatest. They had taken their eyes off of Jesus and had begun to focus on their own self-worth. And there is little doubt that Peter, James, and John were justifying their superiority with tales of their experience at the transfiguration. Rather than discussing the death of Jesus and what His reference to rising again might mean, they were busy debating their own value to the kingdom. And this jockeying for position and prominence would continue. Mark reveals that James and John later come to Jesus and make a bold request: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NLT).

These men were operating from a purely secular and temporal perspective. They saw Jesus as the coming King of Israel and they were hoping to garner key posts in His administration. While Jesus was talking about self-sacrifice, they were busy arguing over their own self-worth and qualifications for leadership roles in the new kingdom.

But Jesus gathered the 12 together and gave them a much-needed lesson on spiritual leadership. And to do so, He used a young child as a visual illustration.

Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great. – Luke 9:48 ESV

This comment must have caught the disciples by surprise. First of all, it revealed that Jesus knew the topic of their conversation, and that must have been embarrassing for them. But secondly, His words were incongruent. They didn’t add up. In their culture, servants and children were considered the least of the least. And last place was no place for a leader. The thought of willingly subjugating yourself in order to serve someone else would have made no sense to these men.

In their culture, children were considered as little more than personal property. They had no rights or privileges. They were powerless and helpless. And yet, Jesus stood before the disciples, with one of these seemingly insignificant and unimportant standing by His side, in a place of prominence. And four different times, Jesus used the word dechomai, which can be translated as “receives” but carries a much fuller meaning: “to embrace, make one’s own, approve, not to reject.” In their society, children tended to be ignored. But Jesus was placing the least in a position of highest honor.

Jesus’ words should have had an air of familiarity to them. The disciples had heard Him say something similar. Just prior to Him sending out the 12 on their first missionary journey, He had told them:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. – Matthew 10:40 ESV

He used the very same formula:

To receive the least ——- is to receive Jesus ——–is to receive God

The disciples were to be the least. They were to be the servants of all. In other words, their role was going to be that of the lowest, not the highest. Their status was to be measured by humility, not glory. The child Jesus held in His arms had no inherent worth or value – from a worldly perspective. He had yet to accomplish anything with his life. He could not boast about his education or business accomplishments. But Jesus had chosen to use this insignificant child to convey a deep spiritual truth. And Jesus was going to use the insignificant disciples to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Not because they were great, but because they were the least. And all those who received the disciples and their message would receive Christ. And to receive Christ would be to receive a restored relationship with God.

But sadly, the disciples failed to grasp the lesson Jesus was trying to convey. Luke reports that John simply changed the subject altogether.

“Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn’t in our group.” – Luke 9:49 NLT

Don’t miss the irony in all of this. The disciples had been unable to cast the demon out of the boy. Yet they had been arguing over which of them was the greatest. And now, after Jesus had just talked about leastness and greatness, John was admitting their corporate pride and arrogance. They had called out someone for casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Why? Because he was not a member of their inner circle. He was an insignificant nobody. According to John, this man was an imposter and had no right to use Jesus’ name or appropriate their position as His disciples. But Jesus issued John a loving and patient reprimand.

Don’t stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you.” – Luke 9:50 NLT 

The disciples had much to learn. And fortunately for them, Jesus was far from finished with His lessons.

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 Self-Deception of Self-Importance

1 “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
    and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria,
the notable men of the first of the nations,
    to whom the house of Israel comes!
Pass over to Calneh, and see,
    and from there go to Hamath the great;
    then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
Are you better than these kingdoms?
    Or is their territory greater than your territory,
O you who put far away the day of disaster
    and bring near the seat of violence?

“Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
    and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
    and calves from the midst of the stall,
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
    and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
who drink wine in bowls
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
    and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”

The Lord God has sworn by himself, declares the Lord, the God of hosts:

“I abhor the pride of Jacob
    and hate his strongholds,
    and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.”

And if ten men remain in one house, they shall die. 10 And when one’s relative, the one who anoints him for burial, shall take him up to bring the bones out of the house, and shall say to him who is in the innermost parts of the house, “Is there still anyone with you?” he shall say, “No”; and he shall say, “Silence! We must not mention the name of the Lord.”

11 For behold, the Lord commands,
    and the great house shall be struck down into fragments,
    and the little house into bits.
12 Do horses run on rocks?
    Does one plow there with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
    and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—
13 you who rejoice in Lo-debar,
    who say, “Have we not by our own strength
    captured Karnaim for ourselves?”
14 “For behold, I will raise up against you a nation,
    O house of Israel,” declares the Lord, the God of hosts;
“and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath
    to the Brook of the Arabah.” Amos 6:1-14 ESV

In this chapter, Amos addresses both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and he does so by addressing their capital cities: Samaria in the north and Zion (Jerusalem ) in the south. But he focuses his attention on a particular class of individuals living in these two cities. They are “those who are at ease,” “who feel secure,” and are among “the notable men” (Amos 6:1 ESV). In other words, these are the influencers and trendsetters among the people of God, the movers and shakers, the power brokers and policy makers. They’re the well-to-do and looked up to, the social elite, and the upper crust of Israelite society.

But rather than praising these fortunate few, Amos pronounces a “woe” upon them. He uses the Hebrew word, hôy, which is an interjection, an expression of emotion or exclamation. It is sometimes translated as “O!” or “Alas!” And, in Scripture, it is most often associated with mourning over coming judgment. It is the same word he used back in chapter 5, verse 18.

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!”

These people who were enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and famous were in for a shock. At the time when Amos was writing his book of prophecy, the northern and southern kingdoms were experiencing unprecedented growth and prosperity. Under the leadership of Jeroboam II, Israel was enjoying a time of geographic expansion and economic revitalization.

He [Jeroboam] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel… – 2 Kings 14:25 ESV

This statement indicates that Israel had been able to restore its borders back to where they had been during the reign of King Solomon, before God divided his kingdom. Things were looking up in Israel, and the upper crust of Israelite society were the ones who benefited the most from these territorial gains. Their land holdings increased, their flocks grew larger, and their financial portfolios prospered. In other words, the rich grew richer. Yet, Amos calls out these opportunistic and self-aggrandizing individuals.

How terrible for you who sprawl on ivory beds
    and lounge on your couches,
eating the meat of tender lambs from the flock
    and of choice calves fattened in the stall.
You sing trivial songs to the sound of the harp
    and fancy yourselves to be great musicians like David.
You drink wine by the bowlful
    and perfume yourselves with fragrant lotions.
    You care nothing about the ruin of your nation. – Amos 6:4-6 NLT

And he goes on to warn them that all of Jeroboam’s geographic gains would eventually be lost and, with them, their financial fortunes and freedom.

“For behold, I will raise up against you a nation,
    O house of Israel,” declares the Lord, the God of hosts;
“and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath
    to the Brook of the Arabah.” – Amos 6:14 ESV

Amos challenges these fat and happy people to consider what happened in Calneh, Hamath, and Gath. These were three “great” cities that had all experienced defeat and destruction. If they could fall, so could Samaria and Jerusalem. The capital cities of Israel and Judah were not exempt or immune from defeat. Amos warns them, “You are no better than they were, and look at how they were destroyed” (Amos 6:2 NLT).

Reveling in their superior social status and relying on their seemingly endless source of financial wealth, these people refused to acknowledge that danger was headed their way. Amos accuses them of living in a state of denial that was only making matters worse.

You push away every thought of coming disaster,
    but your actions only bring the day of judgment closer. – Amos 6:3 NLT 

And he delivers a sobering and somber message from God to these self-made celebrities and social glitterati.

“I despise the arrogance of Israel,
    and I hate their fortresses.
I will give this city
    and everything in it to their enemies.” – Amos 6:8 NLT

Rather than seek God, these people will seek refuge in their well-fortified homes. But when the judgment of God comes, their wealth and walled enclosures will be of no help. Amos describes a scene of utter destruction and widespread death.

If there are ten men left in one house, they will all die.  And when a relative who is responsible to dispose of the dead goes into the house to carry out the bodies, he will ask the last survivor, “Is anyone else with you?” When the person begins to swear, “No, by . . . ,” he will interrupt and say, “Stop! Don’t even mention the name of the Lord.” – Amos 6:9-10 NLT

When the time comes, they will fully recognize that their fall has been the sovereign will of God Almighty, but they will refuse to give Him the credit. And in their pride and stubbornness, they will continue to refuse to seek Yahweh. Despite God’s repeated calls to “Seek me and live” ( Amos 5:6 ESV), they will seek refuge in anything and everything but Him. And, as a result, “When the Lord gives the command, homes both great and small will be smashed to pieces” ( Amos 6:11 NLT). Those inside, regardless of their wealth, influence, or social standing, will all suffer the same fate. Possessions and position will save no one. All their land-holdings, stock increases, and financial gains made through illegal and unjust means will be lost. They will go from celebrating their self-achieved successes to mourning their God-ordained losses. Their pride will be humbled. Their false gods will be exposed. Their possessions will be plundered. And for many, their lives will be forfeited. All because they refused to seek God and live.

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

Love God. Love Others.

Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod
    and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt,
and say, “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria,
    and see the great tumults within her,
    and the oppressed in her midst.”
10 “They do not know how to do right,” declares the Lord,
    “those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.”

11 Therefore thus says the Lord God:

“An adversary shall surround the land
    and bring down your defenses from you,
    and your strongholds shall be plundered.”

12 Thus says the Lord: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.

13 “Hear, and testify against the house of Jacob,”
    declares the Lord God, the God of hosts,
14 “that on the day I punish Israel for his transgressions,
    I will punish the altars of Bethel,
and the horns of the altar shall be cut off
    and fall to the ground.
15 I will strike the winter house along with the summer house,
    and the houses of ivory shall perish,
and the great houses shall come to an end,”
declares the Lord. – Amos 3:9-15 ESV

God calls on two of the foreign nations that surrounded Israel to act as witnesses to against her. He sends out an invitation to Philistia and Egypt, inviting them to gather on the hills surrounding Samaria and observe all the injustice and violence taking place within the walls of the capital city of Israel. God declares that the people of Israel no longer know how to do what is right. In Hebrew, the word that is translated as “right” is nᵊḵōḥâ, and it has to do with uprightness, integrity, or doing the right thing. Interestingly enough, it derives from another Hebrew word, nēḵaḥ, which means, “in the sight of” or “in front of.” In other words, the kind of “right” behavior they had forgotten how to do was to have been on display before others but, more importantly, before God. They had forgotten how to do what was right in God’s eyes.

Unlike the Philistines and Egyptians, who did not have the law of God, the Israelites had conveniently forgotten all that God had commanded them to do. Through the Mosaic Law, He had provided them with a very clear description of what upright behavior should look like. So, they had no excuse.

Amos mentions the acts of oppression, violence, and robbery taking place inside the walls of Samaria. These are the people of God acting in ways that are in direct violation of the law of God. Later on in his book, Amos will go into great detail describing the many acts of oppression and injustice committed by God’s chosen people – against one another.

You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. – Amos 5:11 NLT

You oppress good people by taking bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. – Amos 5:12 NLT

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals. – Amos 8:4-6 NLT

The people of Israel had become callous and hard-hearted. They were driven by their base desires and more interested in comfort and convenience than showing compassion to one another. The rich preyed off the poor. The haves took advantage of the have-nots. Dishonesty and deception were the order of the day. And even the Philistines and Egyptians would be appalled at the unrighteous behavior of the Israelites. Even by pagan standards, the Israelites were immoral and wicked people.

Somehow, they had forgotten the words of God: “love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18 NLT). And centuries later, when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees to name the greatest commandment given by God, He had responded:

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40 NLT

According to Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor were equal and inseparable commands. You can’t have one without the other. And the apostle John would pick up on this theme in his first epistle he wrote to believers living in the first century.

But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:11 ESV

…whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. – 1 John 3:10 ESV

If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? – 1 John 3:17 NLT

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

To both Jesus and John, love of others was a non-negotiable requirement for those who claimed to be children of God. To declare your love for God while denying love to your brothers and sisters was not only unacceptable but illogical. And John makes that point painfully clear: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20 NLT).

Yet the people of Israel were guilty of doing just that. And, as a result, God declared that He was going to judge them for their disobedience to His law. By failing to love one another, they were declaring their lack of love for Him. Their idolatry had transformed them into lovers of self rather than lovers of God.

The behavior of the Israelites was unacceptable to God. It violated every one of His commands concerning the righteous conduct that should have identified them as His chosen people. And centuries later, the apostle Paul would warn his young protégé, Timothy, about self-professing God followers who display this same hypocritical behavior.

…people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that! – 2 Timothy 3:2-5 NLT

God will not tolerate this kind of behavior among those who claim to be His children. So, He warned the Israelites that their actions would have consequences.

Therefore,” says the Sovereign Lord,
    “an enemy is coming!
He will surround them and shatter their defenses.
    Then he will plunder all their fortresses.” – Amos 3:11 NLT

Those who were practicing injustice would suffer the just and righteous judgment of God. Those who had enriched themselves by plundering the poor would find themselves being plundered and left to live in abject poverty. Their failure to love God and love one another was going to cost them dearly. And Amos paints a rather bleak picture of the aftermath of God’s coming destruction.

“A shepherd who tries to rescue a sheep from a lion’s mouth
    will recover only two legs or a piece of an ear.
So it will be for the Israelites in Samaria lying on luxurious beds,
    and for the people of Damascus reclining on couches.” – Amos 3:12 NLT

By the time God is done with them, there won’t be much left. Yahweh, the “roaring lion” of verse 4, will decimate the people of Israel, leaving only a small ragtag remnant living in the land. The rest will end up as captives in Assyria. The wealthy and well-to-do of Israel would find that the tables had turned.  The oppressors would become the oppressed. The privileged would end up as prisoners. The fat and happy would find themselves facing starvation and deep despondency.

And God makes a direct connection between their future suffering and their present sin. The fate they are about to endure will be the direct consequences of their idolatry, apostasy, and unfaithfulness. He warns them, “I will destroy the beautiful homes of the wealthy—their winter mansions and their summer houses, too—all their palaces filled with ivory” (Amos 3:15 NLT). But He makes sure they understand that their loss will be the result of their ungodly behavior, and it all ties back to their decision to forsake Him as the one true God.

“On the very day I punish Israel for its sins,
    I will destroy the pagan altars at Bethel.
The horns of the altar will be cut off
    and fall to the ground…” – Amos 3:14 NLT

God takes them back to the days when the northern kingdom of Israel began. After Solomon had ended his long reign by abandoning Yahweh for the false gods of his many foreign wives, God split his kingdom in two. The ten northern tribes became the kingdom of Israel, ruled over by Jeroboam. And this first king of the northern tribes began his reign by erecting golden calves in the cities of Dan and Bethel, then telling his people, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28 ESV). Those altars to Jeroboam’s false gods remained in Israel for generations. And the spirit of idolatry and apostasy that Jeroboam introduced into Israel had plagued the nation for hundreds of years. Now, God was going to do what the kings of Israel should have done years earlier. He would destroy the pagan altars and eliminate the false gods that had turned the hearts of the people away from Him.

In essence, God was going to make sure that all the idols were removed in Israel. That’s why he mentions the altars at Bethel, but also the “houses of ivory.” The people of Israel were guilty of worshiping their false gods, but they were also guilty of worshiping materialism, ease, comfort, and success. They had made gods out of their possessions. They had found comfort and significance in their social standing and all their status symbols of success. But all that was about to change.

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