Grace vs. Grades

Grace vs. Grades

Dr. Jim Denison

Matthew 20:1-16

Thesis: Life’s motivation should be gratitude for grace, not performance to earn it

John Claypool has long been one of my favorite preachers. In his now-classic treatise, The Preaching Event, he describes the preacher as a “gift-giver,” one who gives to others the gifts he has received from God. The gift we have received is grace. The gift we are to give is grace.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t open the package. Claypool describes himself during his school years as “a nobody who had to compete and out-achieve all others in order to become a somebody.” Even in seminary his problems with self esteem persisted, and were made worse by the institution he attended. Perceptively, he calls his theological alma mater “a community of grades rather than a community of grace.” Claypool has been reading my mail. And yours.

Surveys indicate that the vast majority of Americans are like John Claypool. We live with perpetual self doubt and self esteem problems. Most of us feel deeply inadequate. We don’t want you to know who we really are, because we’re afraid if you do, you won’t like us very much. So we create what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person we wish you to see. It’s a mask we wear. And we’re never without it.

But there’s a better way. Living by grades is a sure road to frustration and despair. We can never do enough, for long enough. There’s always someone else to impress, another way to perform. We’re only as good as our last success.

By contrast, living by grace is the sure road to joy of mind and peace of soul. It is the only way off the roller coaster of good days followed by bad. And it’s a road available to every one of us. Here’s how to find it.

Accept the grace of God

We meet the hero of this week’s parable early: “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard” (Matthew 20.1). Remember, in a parable about the kingdom, the hero is the King. In this week’s guise, he’s a landowner with a vineyard. He owns the vineyard and all it produces. He can hire workers or not. As many as he wishes, whenever he wishes. Anything he pays them is by his choice. And so all is grace.

The first group of workers agreedto receive a denarius, the typical working man’s wages, worth around 17 cents today (Broadus 412). And they began working in the owner’s field.

Around the “third hour” he found a second group of workers. They agreed to work for “whatever is right” (v. 4) and joined the first crew. At the “sixth hour” and the “ninth hour” the vineyard owner hired still more workers, who agreed to work for whatever compensation the master determined to give them.

To this point the story is all routine. The Jews divided the day, from sunrise to sunset, into twelve equal parts. Thus the “sixth hour” was always noon, and the third and ninth would correspond roughly to 9 AM and 3 PM (the hours would be longer or shorter as the length of the days changed; Broadus 412).

A man not hired at the first hour of the day (6 AM) would wait for work “in the marketplace” (v. 3), the place where prospective employers and employees met. These were day laborers, in the most precarious position of anyone in ancient Israel. Even slaves belonged to their master and his family, and would not starve unless times were at their very worst. But a day laborer was hired for a day at a time. He made so little that he could save nothing. To go a day without work was to go a day without food for his family (Barclay 2.223).

Given that the workers were sent to a vineyard, we know that this was the time of the grape harvest, toward the end of September. The fall rains would arrive shortly. If the harvest was not gathered before the rains broke, it would be ruined. Each year’s grape harvest was a race against time. So the master would need all the workers he could get, whenever he could get them (Barclay 2.222).

As a result, even at the “eleventh hour” (v. 6), an hour before sundown and the end of the day’s harvest, the vineyard owner found and employed still other workers. These men had spent the day looking for work, to no avail. Now a man is willing to hire them at day’s end. They cannot expect to receive much compensation, but anything is better than nothing.

So far so good. No surprises, except that a landowner would hire men for so little time, and that workers would accept what they could only anticipate as the smallest of wages. Now comes the twist, the turn which changes everything: “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius” (v. 9). This was twelve times what they deserved or expected. Imagine their surprise and delight at the generosity of their employer. This is a gift not earned, payment not deserved. Compensation chosen by the owner of the vineyard, in his sovereign will. This is amazing grace.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a woman dressed as a male page and hid herself in the queen’s bedroom, waiting for an opportunity to stab the queen to death. But she was found by the queen’s attendants, and dragged before Her Majesty. Realizing that her case was hopeless, she fell before the queen’s throne and begged for grace. Queen Elizabeth looked at her coldly and quietly said, “If I show you grace, what promise will you make for the future?”

The woman looked up from her knees and said, “Grace that hath conditions, grace that is fettered by precautions, is not grace at all.” The Queen was surprised. After a moment’s reflection she said, “You are right. I pardon you by my grace alone.” And they led her away to freedom. Historians tell us that from that moment Queen Elizabeth had no more devoted, faithful servant than the woman who had received her grace.


Jesus And Dow Jesus

Jesus and Dow Jones

Matthew 6:1-4

Dr. Jim Denison

Charles Dow was the co-founder and first editor of The Wall Street Journal. In 1884 he originated a stock average which was the first attempt to express the general level of the stock market. In 1889 he began The Wall Street Journal with the help of Eddie Jones, who took care of the desk at the firm. The Dow Jones Index was the result. Lately, Mr. Dow’s creation has not been in good health.

These are anxious days for us all. Terrorist threats, daily talk of war with Iraq, worries about North Korean nuclear capabilities, the ongoing economic tensions of the day. Time magazine’s cover story is titled “America the Anxious.” Newsweek’s cover: “Anxiety and Your Brain: How Living With Fear Affects the Mind and Body.” When you hear about Dow Jones these days, you brace for bad news.

In this context, it’s interesting timing that the next section of the Sermon on the Mount deals with our finances. It’s no surprise that he would address the subject; 16 of his 38 parables dealt with money and possessions, and one in 10 verses in the Gospels relate to money. The Bible contains 500 verses on prayer, less than that on faith, but more than 2,000 on money and possessions.

This is a large subject for God, and a crucial subject for us today. Let’s see what Jesus has to say about Dow Jones and the financial issues of our day.

Give what God expects

Jesus has been dealing with our “acts of righteousness” (v. 1). Now he gives us the first example: “when you give to the needy” (vs. 2, 3). Not “if” but “when.” What kind of “giving” does he have in mind? His audience gave in three ways.

First, they gave their benevolence to the needy. Every day, collectors received contributions for those with pressing needs; this collection was called the Tamhui. And each Friday, the people gave to the Kuppah, an offering from which widows, orphans, and disabled people received food for the next week.

Second, they gave their tithes to God in worship. This was the command of God: “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30). The “tithe” was ten percent, given to God in worship.

This was not legalism; in fact, the first tithe was given by Abraham six generations before there was a Law (Genesis 14:20).

This was not optional for those who could afford the tithe or wanted to give it. God’s word is clear: “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house” (Malachi 3:8-10).

It is not outdated and no longer operative for New Testament believers. Hebrews 7:8 makes clear that the tithe “is” collected, present tense. Jesus assumed the people would continue to tithe (Matthew 23:23).

The typical Christian gives two percent of his or her income back to God, when the word of God expects 10 percent. God’s church could do five times more if all her people were to tithe.

Third, they gave their offerings to God in sacrifice. The people were instructed to go to the Temple and “there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks” (Deuteronomy 12:6).

The people brought these offerings during each of the Jewish holy days: Passover, Pentecost, First Fruits, the New Year, the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths.

The people made sacrifices twice every day, twice that amount on the Sabbath, and on each New Moon.

They brought special personal sacrifices in celebration of their first-born and for health reasons.

They sacrificed a lamb or a goat when they sinned, and a ram or a lamb when they incurred guilt.

These offerings were given to God in sacrifice, over and above their tithes. Taken together, some scholars estimate that the Jewish people gave 21 percent of their income and goods back to the Lord each year. Theirs was a sacrificial commitment and lifestyle.

By contrast: a recent Gallup poll indicated that 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God, but only 12 percent say they would consider sacrificing for their faith.

When Lou Holtz was coach of the Arkansas football team, he told his players about the Japanese Kamikaze pilot in World War II who flew 54 missions. The pilot was involved but not committed, the coach said.

Here’s a rather blunt way one pastor approached the subject of tithing with his congregation: what if God made you a tither by making your income ten times your contributions to the Lord through his church? Would that be a good thing or not?

C. S. Lewis was asked: how much offering to the Lord is enough. His reply: more than we can afford. Otherwise our gifts are not a sacrifice worthy of the One who sacrificed his best for us.

Give as God directs

We’ve see what God expects. Now, how does he direct us to give to him?

A retired man became interested in the construction of an addition to a shopping mall. He stopped by daily to watch, and was especially impressed by the work of a particular equipment operator. He watched him for many days, and finally told him how much he’d enjoyed watching his outstanding work. With a shocked look on his face, the operator replied, “You’re not the supervisor?”

Our supervisor is watching our work and words, our gifts and our lives. How does he direct us to give to him?

Humbly:

Jesus tells us, “do not announce it with trumpets.” The Jews didn’t blow trumpets before they put in the offering. They announced their public fasts with trumpets; then the people would give when the crowds would most notice their generosity.


Should We Forgive Osama Bin Laden?

Should We Forgive Osama bin Laden?

Matthew 5:43-48

Dr. Jim Denison

Will you ever forget where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001?

Some three thousand were murdered that day. By some estimates, as many as 10,000 children are left without one or both parents. We have been at war with terrorism ever since.

To prepare for this message, I read over the list of the victims of 9-11. The number shocked me. Each name grieved me. They range from Gordon Aamoth, age 32, to Igor Zukelman, age 29. I looked at some of their pictures, and was grieved even more.

Then I thought about Osama bin Laden. When you see his picture, how do you feel? How should we feel? Should we forgive him? What does Jesus say?

Is there an Osama bin Laden closer to your life today? Who has hurt you most recently or most deeply? Where is there bitterness in your soul toward another human being this morning? Let’s ask Jesus for help and healing together.

Love on purpose

Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'” (v. 43).

“Love your neighbor” is a familiar biblical injunction. We find it as early as Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” “Neighbor” comes from “nigh-bor,” one who is “nigh” or near. Loving our neighbor is a basic and familiar Christian ethic.

But were Jesus’ hearers really taught, “hate your enemy?” In fact, they were. The Jewish rabbis considered fellow Jews their neighbor. Everyone else, the Gentile world, was not, and was in fact their spiritual enemy. The Gentile world would corrupt them with its defiled food, customs, and paganism.

Here we find basic humanity exposed. It’s easy to love those who like us and are like us. It’s hard to like those who are not like us and do not like us. It’s human nature to love our neighbor and hate our enemy.

Now Jesus takes his stand: “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44).This statement has no parallel in the Jewish tradition or literature. No religious teacher in world history ever defended such an ethic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred while practicing these very words, said about them, “The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus” (The Cost of Discipleship, 164).

This is the action which makes our love both real and possible.

Jesus expanded these words by saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

When we pray for our enemies, our love becomes real. It moves from sentiment to substance, from feeling to action. It takes wings and grows feet. It becomes practical and tangible. And when we pray for those who persecute us, our actions produce feelings. We act out love, and eventually feel love. It’s a process which takes time, but it works.

Such forgiving love in action reveals our spiritual genetics: “…that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). God blesses both the evil and the good. Sun shines and rain falls on the unrighteous and the righteous. And we’re glad, for we’ve all been evil and unrighteous.

A father should love his children, whether or not they love him; and so God loves us. A sibling should love his sister or brother, whether or not they love him; and so should we. Such love shows us to be our Father’s children.

Otherwise we are no different from the children of the world. The tax-collectors, the most despised people in Israel, love those who love them. The pagans destined for hell greet those who greet them. It is human nature to love those who love us. It is divine nature to love those who do not.

Such selfless, forgiving love fulfills the purpose for which we were created: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).

“Perfect” is the word teleios. In this context it means to achieve the purpose for which we were intended. In this sense a screwdriver is “perfect” if it does its job. It is not “sinless”—it may have nicks on the handle and paint on the blade. But if it turns the screw it was meant to turn, it is teleios.

What is our intended purpose? Jesus made it clear: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. God is love (1 John 4.8), and he has created us to love as he does, to forgive as he does, to love our neighbor because we love our Father and to prove we love our Father by loving our neighbor.

And so selfless, forgiving love is the purpose for which we exist. Now, how do we learn to give it?

Love in practice

Dr. Everett Worthington has written the defining book on forgiveness, titled Dimensions of Forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives. When he began his research, he had no idea how much he would need its results personally. On New Year’s morning of 1996, his elderly mother was found beaten to death with a crowbar and a baseball bat. His advice is both professionally informed and personally compelling.

Dr. Worthington suggests five steps towards forgiveness. In examining them while preparing this message, I was amazed by their parallel to Jesus’ words in our text. They form the acronym REACH.

“R” stands for recall. Recall the hurt, as objectively as you can. Admit the reality of the pain you have experienced. Do not deny it, pretend it doesn’t exist, or excuse the person who caused it. Think about your Osama bin Laden, the person who hurt you most, as realistically as possible.


Stopping at the Tollbooth Of Life

Stopping at the Toll Booth of Life

Dr. Jim Denison

Matthew 13:24-30

Thesis: Those who serve the Kingdom will be rewarded;

those who oppose it will be punished

This week’s parable will teach us two lessons about judgment and the Kingdom of God. Here’s the first lesson: it’s always too soon to judge others. No matter what you think you know about them.

Abraham Lincoln’s elementary school teacher said of him, “He is very good with his studies, but he is a daydreamer and asks foolish questions.” A teacher commented about Woodrow Wilson: “He is ten years old and is just beginning to read and write. He shows signs of improving, but you must not set your sights too high for him.”

One of Amelia Earhart’s teachers was worried about her “interest in bugs and other crawling things and her dare-devil projects,” and hoped “we could channel her curiosity into a safe hobby.” And a teacher said of young Albert Einstein, “Albert is a very poor student. He is mentally slow, unsociable, and is always daydreaming. He is spoiling it for the rest of the class. It would be in the best interests of all if he were removed from school at once.” It’s always too soon to judge another person.

Here’s the second lesson: it’s never too soon to prepare to be judged by God. No matter what you think you know about yourself and your world.

A preacher was trying his best to impress upon his listeners the reality of God’s judgment. “People of this congregation, every one of you will one day die and face the judgment!” he shouted. A man sitting at the front of the church began to laugh. Surprised and angered, the preacher asked the man, “What’s so funny?” The man replied, “I’m not a member of this congregation.” But we all are.

Edward Bennett Williams was a trial lawyer known as the “ultimate insider” and “the man to see” in Washington. As he lay dying, someone was teasing him about all his power and influence. He said, “Power? I’m about to meet real power.” So will we all.

Comic Robert Orben was right: “The problem with living life in the fast lane—you get to the toll booth quicker.” What will we owe when we arrive? And to whom?

Expect to see weeds

Our text begins: “Jesus told them another parable” (v. 24). “Told them” translates the Greek phrase for “set before them.” The Greek means to place alongside, to put next to a person (Rienecker 39). This verb is also found in Luke 9.16, “he gave [fish and bread] to the disciples to set before the people” (cf. Robertson 107); in Acts 16.34, “The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; and in 1 Corinthians 10.27, “eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.” Jesus gave the crowd this story as a chef might give a feast to the hungry. These words would feed their souls.

He gave them “another parable,” following the story of the sower and the seed (see lesson two). And so Jesus continues his agricultural theme. He is teaching in a farming area, alongside the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The fields all around remind him, and them, of the events contained in this parable of the kingdom and its judgment.

The theme of the parable comes first: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (v. 24). This is a parable of the “kingdom of heaven,” like the others we are studying. But unlike others, this parable relates the kingdom not just to the man but to his situation (Carson 316). France translates: “This is what it is like when God is at work . . .” (225).

In our parable we find a “man who sowed,” literally a “man sowing.” This man is the Lord: “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man” (v. 37). Jesus sowed the seed with these very words, this very parable. The “good seed” represents “sons of the kingdom” (v. 38). “Good” means that this seed was genuine, without mixture of other seeds, pure, able to do what it was intended to do (cf. Bruce 199). He sows in “his field,” which Jesus later interpreted as “the world” (v. 38).

Meanwhile, “while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away” (v. 25). The “enemy” is “the devil” (v. 39). He always prefers to work under cover of darkness, in disguise (cf. 2 Corinthians 11.14-15: “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness”). We’ll learn more of his disguise as the story unfolds.

This enemy “sowed weeds among the wheat” (v. 25). “Sowed” means that the weeds were given thorough distribution across the field (Carson 316). There is no place where they are not to be found. The “weeds” were the “bearded darnel,” lolium temulentum. This plant is common in Palestine, and looks like wheat except that its grain is black. It must be separated from the good wheat, or it poisons the food it touches, causing dizziness and worse if eaten (Broadus 295).

This part of the story depicts a very real problem in Jesus’ day. Sowing darnel among wheat was a common act of revenge, so much so that Roman law prescribed specific punishments for it (France 225).

Now “the wheat sprouted and formed heads” (v. 26), for all healthy things grow and produce the fruit which is their intended result (cf. Galatians 5.22-23). The “heads” contain the grain, and would show the character of the plant (Broadus 295). And with it, “the weeds also appeared.” At the end of the day, the plants showed what they really were.

Jesus’ parable teaches us to expect spiritual weeds wherever we plant spiritual seed. He assumes a very real enemy, with a very real strategy. No corner of the field is immune from his infestation. No pesticide can prevent it. There will never be a time on this fallen planet when the enemy will not sow his weeds. They are growing at your side, right now.


Which Son Are You?

Which Son Are You?

Dr. Jim Denison

Luke 15:11-32

Thesis: We are each welcome in the Kingdom of God

One of the most encouraging readings I have ever found is this adaptation from Henri Nouwein’s classic book The Beloved:

I have called you by name

from the very beginning.

You are mine and I am yours.

You are my beloved,

on you my favor rests.

I have molded you in the depths of the earth

and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.

I have carved you in the palm of my hand

and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.

I look at you with infinite tenderness

and care for you with a care more intimate

than that of a mother for her child.

I have counted every hair on your head

and guided you at every step.

Wherever you go, I go with you,

and wherever you rest, I keep watch.

I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger

and drink that will quench all your thirst.

I will not hide my face from you.

You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.

Do these words touch you at a deep place in your soul? Why?

The most popular hymn in America is “Amazing Grace.” This is the conclusion of a survey of more than 10,000 newspaper readers. Others on the top ten list: “How Great Thou Art”; “In The Garden”; “The Old Rugged Cross”; “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”; “A Mighty Fortress”; “Blessed Assurance”; “He Lives”; “Victory In Jesus”; and “Holy, Holy, Holy.” What do our most beloved hymns have in common?

Blaise Pascal was by every measure a genius. He is considered the father of the modern computer, and was famous in his day for his work on probability theory and the problem of the vacuum. He devised Paris’s first public transportation system. And he was a man of remarkable insight into the human condition.

Consider his diagnosis of our basic problem: “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man. . . .

“Yet for very many years no one without faith has ever reached the goal at which everyone is continually aiming. All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions. . . .

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object.”

What is this “infinite and immutable object”? What is it that we need most in our lives? This week we are privileged to walk through “the greatest short story in the world” (Barclay 204). Here we’ll find the answer to our souls’ deepest longing, the hub into which all the spokes of our lives fit. Here is the “true north” which makes sense of our chaos, the discovery which alone can give life genuine significance.

This key to the meaning of life is found when you answer one question: which son in our story are you?

Leaving the home of grace

“There was a man who had two sons” (v. 11). And so our story begins. The man was presumably a Palestinian Jewish farmer or landowner. His “many” servants (v. 17) attested to his wealth. He was a man blessed with lands, possessions, and sons. Until today.

This day, “The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate'” (v. 12a). Nothing in the story indicates that either son was married, yet both were wealthy and would likely wed when reaching the marriage age of 30. And so they were both under this age; the younger son is perhaps closer to 20 (Fitzmyer 1087). And their father was still a relatively young man.

Nonetheless, his younger son wanted the part of the state which customarily came to him at his father’s death. Assuming there were only two sons, the older would receive 2/3 of the estate, so-called “double share” (Deuteronomy 21.17), while the younger received 1/3. Such a request was not impossible legally, but it was as much an outrage as a similar demand would be in our society today.

Despite this grave insult, the father did as his younger son asked: “So he divided his property between them” (v. 12b). This decision marked a formal and legal division of his goods (Rienecker 186), a binding action for them all. It would appear that the younger son received his part of the estate in money or moveable property, while the elder received the lands and fixed property (Barnes 102). If this is true, the father must have given a great deal of his personal possessions to constitute the estate owed his younger son. Every day would bring a fresh reminder of all he no longer owned—in his property and in his son.

Here we see the first appearance of that grace which is the central focus of Jesus’ parable. The father was not bound to grant his son’s disrespectful demand. He was not bound to give such personal possession to constitute an estate he did not owe until his death. But he gives what the son asks, with no word of complaint or censure. How many parents would do the same for one of their sons today? Would you?


Who Will Win The Oscar?

Who Will Win the Oscar?

Matthew 6:1

Dr. Jim Denison

Last Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for this year’s Academy Awards. The winners will each receive something called an “Oscar,” though no one knows why. One possible answer is that early on, the Academy librarian said the statuette resembled her Uncle Oscar.

An Oscar weighs 8.5 pounds and stands 13.5 inches tall. It depicts a knight holding a crusader’s sword, standing on a reel of film. It takes twelve people twenty hours to make one of the 50 statuettes produced each year. The Oscars are then shipped in unmarked cardboard boxes for security reasons, though they were stolen three years ago and found nine days later next to a dumpster.

Last year, 41 million people watched to see who would win an Oscar. On March 23, we’ll watch again. And then forget what we saw. Who won last year? The year before? Who really cares?

However, another performance is being watched every day by an audience of One. You’re on his stage right now. And his judgment will last forever.

This morning we’ll learn that God cares more about our hearts than our hands, our motives more than our methods. His is the only reward which can give us joy, peace, and significance, long after the world’s awards have faded. So, how do we receive his reward, in this life and for all eternity? How do we please our audience of One?

Who is our audience?

Jesus begins: “Be careful.” The words in the original are much stronger; they mean to be on your guard now, to take heed immediately. Jesus sets up a sign along the highway: Don’t go here! Bridge out—falling rock—dead end. Turn back now! When the all-knowing, all-seeing God of the universe warns us not to travel down a road, we want to “be careful.”

Of what? “Not to do your acts of righteousness….”

Jesus refers to the religious activities he’ll address shortly: giving, praying, fasting. But he also means the issues he has just addressed: giving to those who ask, loving our enemy.

He assumes that we’ll do these “acts of righteousness.” The issue is not the action, but the motive. Not the “what” but the “why.”

So here are the key words: “before men, to be seen by them.”

The syntax means, “for the purpose of being seen by men.”

Now the Oscar comes into view: “to be seen by” translates the word theathenai, from which we get “theatrical.” The phrase means “to be theatrical before men” and is best translated, “do not do your acts of righteousness as an actor on a stage, seeking the applause of men as your audience.”

His concern is not with our methods, but our motives. He wants us to work hard and well, so that our world will praise the God whom we serve. Not for our glory, but for his. Not for our applause, but for his alone. Why does he warn us so strongly about this “desire for glory”?

Such pride can corrupt us morally, as we compromise for applause. The Chinese have a proverb, “He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain the ashes.” How many in public life have done this in recent years?

Ego steals our peace and joy. As the story goes, a monk in a wilderness cave was so famous for his holiness that even demons tempting him with great wealth and sensuous pleasure failed. He just sat serenely. So the devil barked, “Step aside, and I will show you what has never failed.” He leaned over to the monk and whispered, “Have you heard the news? Your classmate Makarios has just been named bishop of Alexandria.” And the monk scowled.

Pride causes us to hurt others for our sake. T. S. Eliot was right: “Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people who want to be important.”

Pride hurts us with God, not just with people.

God’s word is clear: “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8); “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17); “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Pride keeps God from using us fully. Martin Luther: “God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.”

Kenneth Blanchard, co-author of the business classic The One-Minute Manager, says, “I define ego as Edging God Out.”

And Jesus taught us that when we live for the applause of the world more than for God’s glory, “you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6.1b). His reward is “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). His is the reward for which we were made. It alone satisfies the hunger in our souls, the longing for significance and meaning in our hearts. The world’s applause will die as quickly in our lives as at the Oscars. But the reward Jesus gives to those who live for his glory, to please him, is for now and forever.

My favorite story about humility comes from the time Muhammad Ali was about to take off on an airplane. He was in his prime, on top of the world. The flight attendant reminded him to fasten his seat belt, and he said brashly, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” She came back, “Superman don’t need no airplane, either.” He fasted his belt.

That was then; this is now. The former heavyweight champion of the world was interviewed not long ago. The reporter met him in the barn on his property. His awards, trophies, posters were lying against the barn walls, bird droppings running down them. He could barely speak, and his hands quivered constantly. He gestured to the awards around him and whispered, “Look at all that. It don’t mean nothin’ now.”


Who Will You Bring To Jesus?

Who Will You Bring to Jesus?

Dr. Jim Denison

Luke 14:15-24

Thesis: “Grace is given not because we have done good works,

but in order that we may be able to do them.Augustine

I once heard the famous preacher Frederick Sampson tell about spending a summer on his uncle’s farm. His first morning, his farmer uncle rousted him out of his bed in the hayloft at 4:00 in the morning, and got him busy mucking out stalls, sweeping floors, chopping wood, heating water, doing whatever the house and barn required.

Finally Fred was done. He started back up the ladder to the hayloft to go back to sleep. His uncle stopped him and asked where he was going. Fred said, “I’ve finished my work.” His uncle bent down, put his finger in Fred’s face, and said, “I’m going to tell you something, and don’t you ever forget it. What you do around the house is chores. What you do in the fields is work.”

To extend the Kingdom of God, we must work in the fields. This week’s parable shows us how and why to do this work. But understand: this is a parable of grace, not works. To be invited into the Kingdom is grace. To extend that invitation to others is grace. Augustine was right: “grace is given not because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them.” Here’s how to “do them.”

Look forward to the party

Our text begins: “When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus . . .” (Luke 14.15). Luke 14 has already told the story of Jesus’ dinner at the house of a “prominent Pharisee” (v. 1). Here Jesus watched as “the guests picked the places of honor at the table” (v. 7). So he urged his host: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (vs. 13-14).

In response to Jesus’ reference to the resurrection, one of the invited guests at the banquet made his exclamation: “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (v. 15). The man was well educated in rabbinic theology. The rabbis typically used the banquet table as a symbol for the bliss of heaven (Robertson 197).

They expected that the Messiah “would be a temporal prince, and that his reign would be one of great magnificence and splendor. They supposed that the Jews then would be delivered from all their oppressions, and that, from being a degraded people, they would become the most distinguished and happy nation of the earth. To that period they looked forward as one of great happiness” (Barnes 96).

Jesus did not at all deny the man’s theology. Heaven will in fact be a great feast in the presence of the Lord, for “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19.9). But Jesus corrected the man’s assumption that Jews, and only Jews, would attend the festival. The parable we are studying this week shows who will be part of the great feast, and who will not.

Before we explore Jesus’ story, let’s rejoice in its premise. Heaven will be a party. It will be a celebration, an eternal feast in the presence of our loving Father. It will be glory beyond description, for “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2.9). Those seated at God’s banquet table “will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21.3-4).

One day all of us who know Jesus personally will answer his invitation, “so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22.30). On that day, “Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8.11).

The kingdom of God is a party. If Jesus is your Lord, you will spend eternity by his side, at his banquet. This is the good news of God.

Come when you’re called

Now, who will attend with you? Jesus’ story begins: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests” (v. 16). In Jesus’ parables the kingdom of God is always central. The hero is always the King. Here, he is the man giving the “great banquet.”

To his festival he “invited many guests.” God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3.9). Who can come to his party? “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16). The king wants “many guests” at his table.

So he sent out the first invitation. In ancient Palestine, banquets were announced long before the preparations were finished. There were many factors which affected the actual date and time of the feast. Weather was always a factor in their society, where meals were typically cooked and eaten out of doors. Harvests and the availability of food varied widely. Health issues were harder to resolve. Political circumstances changed often.

And so it was customary to invite people to a feast, then notify those who accepted the invitation when the meal was actually prepared. As people had fewer distractions than we face today, it was far more likely that they would respond to such an immediate notice. And once they had accepted the first invitation to come, they were honor bound to do so (cf. Esther 5.8; Bliss 235; Barclay 192-3).

Now the time was at hand. The master “sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready'” (v. 17). “Sent” is the word “apostello,” meaning to send as an official and authoritative representative (Rienecker 184; this is the root of the word “apostle”). This servant has come in the name and authority of his master, acting on his behalf. In the same way we are sent to our unbelieving world as “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5.20).