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.

Such gratitude is the true and best motivation for service in the King’s vineyard. Not so we will be rewarded, but because we are. Not so we will be people of worth, but because he has made us so. Not so he will love us, but because he does.

The world’s religions know little of this grace. Prometheus gave fire to men, and was punished by the gods for his “man-loving disposition.” Whether we seek to climb up to God on the Buddhist ladder of the eight-fold noble truth, the Hindu pathway of karma, or the Muslim or Jewish rope knotted with laws and regulations, the work is ours. The way of grades.

Christianity is different. During a British conference on world religions, the experts began debating what, if any, belief was unique to our faith. None could be found—others had various doctrines of incarnation, resurrection, and revelation. Then C. S. Lewis wandered into the room, and asked what the controversy was about. He was given the question, and responded immediately, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Share the grace of God

Whenever surveyors ask Christians in America for their favorite hymn, Amazing Grace always tops the list. We love to sing about grace. We love to receive it. But we’re not always so enthusiastic about sharing it.

The owner arranged payment of his workers so that those employed last were paid first. When the one-hour employees received a day’s wages, the twelve-hour workers quickly did the math. The grace by which they had been employed at all has now faded in the face of this new possibility of wealth. In their minds the good news has already been shared with their wives and families, bills paid, vacation days planned.

Then came the second surprise: “each one of them also received a denarius” (v. 10). And excitement turned sour: “When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowners” (v. 11). “Grumble” here means to complain or gripe. The imperfect tense shows an ongoing, continuous action (Broadus 413). We can hear their words of frustration, whispered to each other as they scowl at their one-time benefactor. Spurgeon said it well: “As soon as the penny was in their hand, a murmur was in their mouth” (276).

Someone became their spokesman: “These men who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burdens of the work and the heat of the day” (v. 12). He has a point. The work in that late summer Palestinian climate was hard, its heat intense. The “heat of the day” probably refers not to typical high temperatures, a routine fact hardly be worth mentioning, but to the dry and scorching east wind common in that region of the world.

This was the wind which blasted the grain in Pharoah’s dream (Genesis 41.6), withered Jonah’s vine (Jonah 4.8), and destroyed the vine in Ezekiel’s parable (Ezekiel 17.10; Robertson 160). It was infamous throughout the world, and a terrible thing to experience (Broadus 413). Those hired last worked in the cool of the day, not its heat.

When we compare ourselves with others we can always find someone who has had things easier than we have. Someone has been given greater advantages, had better luck, seen better times. As soon as we assume we have earned what has been given to us by grace, we want more grace. We are thankful for our blessings until we see others we have missed. Then we take for granted all we have received, and protest that others have received more.

We complain about the boss’s son who inherits the business we work so hard to advance. We are frustrated that people who work no harder than we do have a nicer home, newer car, better clothes. We forget that all we have comes by grace. Did we deserve to be born in America with its freedoms and not North Korea with its oppression? Did we deserve to have parents who loved us rather than abandoning us? Did we deserve to be given physical and intellectual abilities and not challenges? Did we deserve to work in an office in Dallas on September 11, 2001 and not the World Trade Center in New York City?

The master straightened things out: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?” (v. 13). “Friend” is a kind, familiar term, a generous reply to this man who has voiced such criticism (Broadus 413, Robertson 160). What we have is the grace of our Master. The proper response is gratitude, not grumbling. So “take your pay and go” (v. 14). Literally “Pick up your money,” as if the worker had contemptuously thrown his denarius on the ground (Robertson 160).

Now the sovereign will and rights of the master are made clear: “I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v. 14). “Are you envious” translates “Is your eye ponerous,” evil, stingy, miserly. The ancients knew that the eye reveals the soul (which is why sculptures made of dead subjects always leave the eye blank). The “evil eye” revealed an “evil soul.”

The owner can do whatever he wishes with his money and his vineyard, for they are his. If I want my employer to be generous with me, I should expect him to be generous with my colleague as well. When all is of grace, all receive grace. And “the last will be first, and the first will be last” in line (v. 16). Each should be grateful to be included.

Celebrate the grace of God

Jesus’ parable exposes the motives of our hearts. Each of the workers did what he was employed to do, for as long as he was employed to do it. Each received the wages he had agreed to accept. But some rejoiced in grace, while others complained about it. The story reveals our reasons for religious activity, our motives for spiritual service. Grace for some, grades for others.

Why are you reading this commentary? Why do you serve the Lord and our church? Why am I writing these words? Our motives can only be two: a desire to become significant, or gratitude that we already are. We serve Jesus so that he will love us or help us; or we serve him because he already does. We work in the vineyard to be blessed, or because we are.

Jesus’ parable makes this diagnostic suggestion: to learn whether or not you are a person of grace, see how you respond when someone else receives it. When someone else is given the recognition you hoped would be your reward; when another is graced with more than he or she deserves, when you wanted to receive more than you deserve.

In Matthew 19, Peter says to Jesus: “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (v. 27). Does his question reveal your heart today?

Is your motive grace or grades? Dr. Criswell’s comment is worth repeating: “Jesus seeks permanent servants to honor Him, and men and women love the work and who are not in His service for pay or reward. We are not to work for the Lord by contract, for the reward, for what we can get out of it. We are to work for our Savior just for the love of the Lord and we are to leave the reward up to Him” (p. 116).

The pastor then illustrated his exposition with a poem, author unknown. Perhaps the Spirit would speak its words to your heart:

Where shall I work today, dear Lord?

And my love flowed warm and free.

Then the Lord pointed out a tiny place

And said, “Tend that for me.”

I cried, “Oh, no, not over there,

Why, no one would ever see,

No matter how well my work was done.

Not that little place for me!”

When the Lord spoke, He was not harsh.

He answered me tenderly:

“Tell me, precious child of mine,

Are you working for them or for Me?

Nazareth was a little place

And so was Galilee.”

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?


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.

Such were “hypocrites”—the word means an actor on a stage, wearing a mask and playing a part.

Such already “have received their reward in full.” The words mean that they have their receipt, with no more payment to come. God cannot reward them in heaven, or on earth.

God tells us to give our money, our sacrificial tithes and offerings, for his glory and not our own.


“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (v. 3). In other words, don’t let anyone know what you have given.

Then “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (v. 4). Give to the Lord, not to us. Give not to the church but through the church to God. Not so we will know, but so God will be pleased.


“Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 16:17). “According to their ability they gave to the treasury for this work” (Ezra 2:69). “The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). “If the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Corinthians 8:12).

So long as our gift is a sacrifice, it is pleasing to God. Not the amount but the commitment is the issue with our Father.


“Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Join God at work

One of the items in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” columns pictured a plain bar of iron worth $5. Made into horseshoes, that iron is worth $50. Made into needles, it is worth $5,000. Made into balance springs for Swiss watches, it is worth $500,000. It’s not the material but its use that matters.

There is a divine-human partnership in God’s Kingdom. We do what we can, and he does the rest. Noah built the Ark, and God sent the flood. Moses raised his rod, and God parted the Red Sea. The priests stepped into the flooded Jordan River, and God stopped its flow. Solomon built the Temple, and God filled it with his presence. Peter stepped onto the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus redeemed his faith. John worshipped on Patmos, and Jesus gave him the book of Revelation.

So it is that God finances his Kingdom work through the sacrificial faithfulness of his people. He has chosen to do it this way. He owns all that exists, but he will only use that which we give to his use. He will only work with the materials we give to his purpose. Our obedience to his call to sacrifice affects directly his work on earth.

Saul lost his kingdom because he wouldn’t make sacrifices to God. The Jews lost their nation because they wouldn’t repent before Babylon. The people of Jesus day lost their opportunity for salvation because they wouldn’t trust in the Christ. Festus and Felix lost heaven because they wouldn’t believe Paul.

General MacArthur asked for thousands of missionaries for the Far East in the days after World War II, but the churches didn’t send them. Now those lands are almost entirely Muslim, and closed to the gospel.

On the other hand, God will use every sacrifice placed into his hands. A boy’s lunch feeds 5,000 families. Humble fishermen begin the greatest spiritual movement in human history. An angry Pharisee becomes the greatest theologian the church has ever known. An immoral adulterer named Augustine becomes the greatest theologian since Paul. A troubled monk named Luther begins the Reformation. A martyred German named Bonhoeffer still challenges the church.


I’ll be in heaven because two men gave up their Saturday mornings to knock on my door and invite me to ride their bus to church. What sacrifice did God use to bring you to himself? What sacrifice will you give him today?

God finances his Kingdom through the sacrificial faithfulness of his people. And he blesses those who trust him enough to receive what he will give them in return.

A man was lost in the desert southwest, and dying for water. He stumbled upon an old rundown shack, and inside it, a weather-beaten water pump. Frantically, he grabbed the handle and began to pump, but nothing came out. It was bone dry.

Then he noticed an old jug. The label read: “You have to prime the pump with all the water in this jug. Be sure you fill the jug again before you leave.” He unscrewed the cap to find a jug full of water, and a decision. He could drink the water and live for a day or so. Or he could pour the water into the old pump by faith that he would have all the water he would need.

Finally he poured the jug’s contents into the pump. He began to pump the handle as fast as he could. The old leather valves began to squeak like they were tearing apart. Then a little bit of water began to dribble out, then a little more, and finally it gushed forth. Clean, clear, cold water, all he would ever need.

He filled the jug for the next traveler. And he added this note: “Believe me, it really works. You have to give it all away to get back all you need.”

Let us pray.

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.

Jesus begins at the same place: “Love your enemies” (v. 44). Not “love if you have enemies.” He knows that we do, and that we know who they are. He warned us: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16.33). Where is yours? Who caused it? Think about the person, and especially what that person did, the specific actions which injured you. Recall the hurt in all its reality.

“E” stands for empathize. Try to understand why this person hurt you, from his point of view.

Osama bin Laden wants to remove all foreigners from Saudi Arabia, then remove Israel from the Middle East. He thinks attacking America is the way to do this. Why did your “enemies” hurt you? What could have been their motive, their feeling, their own hurt?

Jesus tells us to “Love our enemies,” using the unusual Greek word agape. This word was employed very seldom in the Greek world prior to Christianity. The common Greek words for “love” point to sexual, family, or friendship love.

Agape is far more. It is selfless, sacrificial, the love which puts the other person first with no thought of reward. The love which cares for the other, however they feel about us.

How do we do this? “A” in Dr. Worthington’s acronym stands for giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness.

Jesus tells us to “pray for those who persecute us.” His words are present tense—do it even while they are persecuting us. This is the act whereby genuine forgiveness always begins.

Such prayer surrenders the right to get even with the person who hurts us, but gives them over to God instead. Such prayer enables us to see this person as God does, as a weak, fallible, complicated human being like ourselves. And such prayer begins the process of wishing for their welfare.

Note that praying for our enemies does not deny justice. Nowhere does Jesus teach us that forgiveness suspends the consequences of evil actions. The legal process which governs human affairs and nations must proceed. To forgive means that we pardon personally—we give up our right to punish this person ourselves. We no longer want revenge and vengeance for ourselves. We trust this person into the hands of God and that justice which is fair and right.

“C” stands for public commitment to forgiveness. Dr. Worthington’s clients write a “certificate of forgiveness,” a letter of forgiveness to the offender. They write such forgiveness in their diary, or tell a trusted friend what they have done. They make public their pardon for the one who has hurt them.

Jesus makes clear that our forgiveness must be equally public. This is our witness, proof that we are children of a forgiving Father. Such forgiveness separates us publicly from the tax-collectors and pagans of our day. It shows the world that we belong to a God of grace.

“H” stands for the final step, to hold onto forgiveness. Every time the pain returns, we take these steps again. We recall it, we empathize with the one who hurt us, we forgive altruistically through prayer, and we commit to such forgiveness. As we do so we become “perfect,” fulfilling God’s created purpose for our lives. We love as he loves. We make Jesus’ love real through our own.

Corrie ten Boom, the Holocaust survivor who lost her entire family to the Nazis, knew firsthand that forgiveness is such a process. She likened it to letting go of a bell rope. When you’re pulling on the rope which rings a bell, and you let it go, the bell keeps ringing for a while. But if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stops. She says that forgiveness is not something we feel, but something we do. It is letting go of the rope.


What does this message say to us about Osama bin Laden? Jesus plainly tells us to agape him—to extend to him the selfless, sacrificial love which wants his best in Christ. To pray for him. And to trust him to the judgment of law and the justice of God.

What does this sermon say to us about our personal Osama? The message is the very same. Recall the person and the specific hurt you felt. Empathize in selfless love. Be altruistic through prayer, surrendering your right to revenge and placing him or her in God’s hands. Commit definitely and publicly to pardon and reconciliation. Hold this commitment firm every time the pain returns to your heart, the anger to your soul.

In short, do for others what Jesus has done for us. Give to others that which he has given to you. And he will help you give it.

According to legend, when Barabbas led his revolt in Jerusalem, several people were killed, among them the only son of a carpenter in that city. With revenge in his heart, that father bribed the Roman soldiers to let him make the three crosses used the day of Jesus’ execution. He made the cross for Barabbas much heavier than the other two, to increase the suffering of his son’s murderer. However, when Barabbas was freed and Jesus crucified in his place, our Savior had to carry his cross. That’s why it was so heavy that Jesus stumbled and Simon of Cyrene had to help carry it.

It’s only a legend, but its spiritual point is true. Jesus’ cross was heavier than any other. Not because it weighed more physically, but spiritually. He carried the sins of the world on it. Including mine. Including yours.

From that cross he prayed that his Father would forgive us. And so he does. Now he asks only that we give what he has given to us. And he will help us give it.

A grandfather and his grandson were discussing September 11. The boy said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One is angry and wants only revenge. The other is loving and forgiving. Which will win?” His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

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.

Leave the harvest to the Lord

What do we do about them? “Sir” (translating the word for “lord,” here a common term of respect), “didn’t you sow good seed in your field?” (v. 27). The syntax expects a positive answer (Rienecker 39), for they know the fault does not lie with the owner of the field. “Where then did the weeds come from?” There are far too many weeds for their existence to be explained naturally (Bruce 200). In the same way, there is far more evil in the world than can be accounted for by natural circumstances or human nature.

The owner has the answer: “An enemy did this” (v. 28). “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” the servants ask next. The owner’s reply is emphatic in the Greek: “No!” (v. 29; Bruce 200). Why not? “While you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.” This is why the Lord delays his return and judgment: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3.9).

So what are we to do? “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (v. 30). There will come a spiritual harvest, at which time Jesus “will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3.12).

Next Jesus gave the crowd two more parables, stories of the mustard seed and the leaven (vs. 31-35). Then he “left the crowd and went into the house” (v. 36). This was most probably the home of Peter at Capernaum, the same house mentioned in Matthew 13.1: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake” (Broadus 299).

Here his disciples said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” Of the four parables Jesus taught from his boat, this is the one they most wanted help in understanding. They asked him to “make thoroughly clear, right now” (Rienecker 40). The Greek tense betrays a sense of urgency to their question (Robertson 109). The disciples understood what we must as well: this is a crucial issue, one we must understand now.

So Jesus explained: “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man” (v. 37). “Son of man” was his favorite self-designation, found 81 times in the gospels. At one time scholars thought Jesus meant by this a reference to himself as the Messiah. Now most interpreters believe that he used it to emphasize his humanness, his humility. He “sowed” (present tense), as he sows still today.

“The field is the world” (v. 38). It is “extremely important” (Robertson 109) that we understand this fact: the field in which the weeds grow is the world, not the church. Nowhere did Jesus make the “kingdom” synonymous with the “church” (Carson 316). His point is not that spiritual weeds, false believers, will always be found in the church. Rather it is that they will always be found in the world (Maclaren 237-8). While we will find such “problem people” in the church as well (cf. Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5.1-11), they are symptomatic of a larger problem in the larger world.

These weeds are “sons of the evil one.” “Sons” is a legal term for one who is related to his father by rights and inheritance (Lenski 536). Those who are not the children of God are the children of the devil. There is no third category.

“The harvest” is the “end of the age” (v. 39), a typical Jewish phrase for the consummation of history (Broadus 301). And “the harvesters are angels.” Revelation pictures angels as instruments of divine judgment: “He who was seated on the cloud [Christ] swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.’ The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia” (Revelation 14.16-20).

At this “end of the age,” “the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire” (v. 40). First-century farmers would cut their crop with sharp sickles. Wheat and weeds would be cut together, then the reapers would separate them as they lay on the ground. The weeds were tied into bundles for burning as fuel (Beare 306).

In the very same way, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (v. 41). The parable does not teach that these “weeds” are actually members of the kingdom—they are merely mixed in the world with the children of God until the separation comes (Robertson 110). The “weeds” are those who “cause sin.” This is the Greek word for the bait stick in a trap. When the animal takes the bait, the stick to which it is attached springs shut and traps its victim (Rienecker 40).

God alone knows who these “bait stick” people are. You and I cannot judge, for we have no way to see the heart. Jesus warned us: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7.1-2). Augustine was right: God has some the church hasn’t, and the church has some God hasn’t. We cannot know who is truly a child of God, and who is truly not. We’ll likely be surprised in heaven at who is there, and who is not.

It has been wisely said: comparisons are unhealthy because we compare our insides with their outsides. We judge their behavior, but our intentions. We excuse our sins and failures, because we know what we “meant to do.” But we refuse others the benefit we grant ourselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was deeply insightful when he observed, “Whoever regards a man with contempt will never be able to make anything out of him. Nothing for which we feel contempt in others is completely lacking in us.”

So we should share the good news of God’s love with as many as we can, and leave the results to the Spirit. You and I cannot convict a single person of a single sin. We cannot change a single life, or save a single soul. Only the Spirit can transform the human heart. Sow the seed, and leave the harvest with God.

Be ready when the harvest comes

All those who are used by the enemy will be thrown “into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 42). The darnel was used in this way in Jesus’ day as fuel. The spiritual darnel will face the same fate: “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21.8). Jesus called this eternal destination the lake where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9.48) and “everlasting fire” (Matthew 25.41; Luke 16.24).

Here there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Five other times Jesus used this phrase to describe the eternal destiny of the damned. Some will not be prepared for the “wedding” (the return of Christ): “the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'” (Matthew 22.13).

Some will trust their religious background but do not know Christ personally: “The subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8.12).

Some will live in sin, refusing to prepare for the return of the Lord: “Suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24.49-51).

Others will refuse to give their lives to Christ and use their opportunities for him: “Take the talent from him [the man who buried it] and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25.28-30).

And still others will trust in their good works as their salvation: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (Luke 13.24-30).

So be prepared for the harvest to come. Be ready for Jesus to return today by committing your life personally to him as Lord. Do not trust your religious background or achievements to save you. Confess your sins and use your opportunities for the glory of God. If the Lord Jesus were to return before you finished reading this lesson, would you be ready to see him? If not, put these words aside and turn your heart to him. Submit to him as Lord. Draw a spiritual circle around yourself and pray until everything inside that circle is right with your Father. And live each day ready for it to be your last.

With this promise: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v. 43). “Shine” translates a Greek phrase which suggests the sun emerging from behind a cloud (Rienecker 41; Bruce 203). The angel of the Lord assured Daniel, “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12.3).

The apostle John explained further: “Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3.2-3). One day we will shine with the radiance which reflects the glory of the Lord. And that will be glory indeed (cf. Malachi 4.1-2).

One of my favorite stories is the true account of a missionary couple returning to America after a lifetime spent on a foreign field. It so happened that they booked passage on the ship which also brought President Theodore Roosevelt and his entourage home from an overseas safari. For the entire journey, the passengers paid homage to the president; not a soul noticed the faithful missionaries. But they comforted each other: “We’re not home yet.”

When the ship pulled into dock, the press was there. A gala celebration awaited the president. Not a single person was waiting for the missionaries. No one from their home church; no one from their mission agency. They carried their luggage off the ship with no place to go. Surprised, hurt, and discouraged, they found a cheap hotel room for the night.

The husband was enraged. “All our lives we served faithfully, and not a single person has come to welcome us home!” He ranted and fumed, until his longsuffering wife had enough. She sent him out of the room to take a walk and calm down.

He returned an hour later, a different man. His heart was calm, his spirit at peace. “What happened?” she wanted to know. He explained: “I told the Lord how hurt I was. How angry and upset—we came home and there was no one to meet us. Home, with no one to care for us. Home, with no one at all. And he quietly whispered to me: You’re not home yet.”

Neither are you. But one day you will be. Are you prepared?

Jesus’ story makes two facts plain: it’s always too soon to judge others; and it’s never too soon to prepare for judgment ourselves. There’s a toll booth on the road you’re traveling today. Maybe around the next turn. Get ready to stop.

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?

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 13). What a turn in life and fortune Jesus captured in these few words. The young man had more than most of the world could dream of owning. After converting flocks or grain, possessions and property, he owned 1/3 of a wealthy estate. To a world populated primarily by slaves and impoverished serfs, such a man was standing at the top of the social ladder. Given the popular belief of the day that wealth is proof of divine favor, this man has been blessed by heaven and earth.

But not for long. He left his Palestinian home to see the larger world. And it saw him coming. Soon he “squandered” his wealth—the word means to scatter in various directions (Rienecker 186). Jesus used the same word in Matthew 25.24: “gathering where you have not scattered seed” (Robertson 208). Picture a farmer throwing his seed to the wind, and you see the younger brother at work. His father’s lifetime of earning and savings was nothing to him. Easy come, easy go.

Had he invested poorly, we would criticize his foolishness but not his goals. But no: he squandered his wealth in “wild living.” The word means to “live prodigally,” to engage in debauched living (Rienecker 186). It stands for reckless waste with free reign given to every passion, the height of undisciplined freedom (Bruce 580), the “limit of sinful excesses” (Robertson 208). This word, found here only in the New Testament, names its owner for all time as the “prodigal son.”

What happened next is the way of our fallen world: “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need” (v. 14). Famines were common in the ancient Near East. They were caused by crop failures, want of rain, strong sun, or prevalence of plagues or pestilence (Barnes 102). At the worst possible moment, such a famine struck the “whole country” where he now lived. The young man had lost all he owned, and now had no way to earn it back.

So he stepped from the immoral to the unthinkable: “he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs” (v. 15). “Hired himself” means to glue together, to join. He appears that he forced himself on a citizen of that country (Rienecker 187; Bruce 580). And not just any citizen—a pig owner, thus a Gentile. Remember that the Jews were taught to believe that God made Gentiles only so there would be firewood in hell. No self-respecting Jew would go into a Gentile home, or touch Gentile possessions. And above all, no Jewish boy would feed a pig.

Pig herding was the most degrading occupation known to the Jews (Rienecker 187). Pigs were “unclean” for the people (Leviticus 11.7); they were “not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses” (Deuteronomy 14.8). One of the rabbis said, “Cursed be the man who raises pigs” (quoted by Fitzmyer 1088).

Barnes gives us the spiritual sense of Jesus’ picture: “The object of this image, as used by the Savior in the parable, is to show the loathsome employments and the deep degradation to which sin leads men, and no circumstance could possibly illustrate it in a more striking manner than he has done here. Sin and its results everywhere have the same relation to that which is noble and great, which the feeding of swine had, in the estimation of a Jew, to an honorable and dignified employment (103).

The “prodigal” has taken his father’s estate as though he were dead. He has left his home for the “far country.” He has “squandered” possessions his father spent a lifetime earning. Now he has forced himself on a Gentile to feed pigs. But there is one step lower into the abyss: “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything” (v. 16).

These “pods” were horn-shaped parts of the carob tree (Bruce 580), sometimes called “Saint John’s Bread” from the notion that the Baptist ate them in the wilderness (Robertson 209; cf. Barnes 103). Some read the text to suggest that the prodigal could eat these but nothing more (Bruce 581). But the more likely meaning is that he could not have even these (Barnes 103). In such depressed times of famine, this food had been measured out for the swine and there was nothing to spare.

Here is what it is like to leave the home of grace. It is to refuse your Father’s plans and purposes, dreams and goals for your life. To take gifts, abilities, possessions and opportunities which he intends to be used for his glory and your good, and use them for your own selfish ends. To waste them. To give yourself to people or purposes which demean him as your Father, and dishonor his family and you. To find yourself starved and abandoned alone.

It is your story and it is mine. It is the story of every person who rejects the love of God, who leaves the home of grace. But the story didn’t end there. It never does.

Coming home to grace

“When he came to his senses” (v. 17a)—the second chance of grace. The Greek says literally, “coming to himself.” It can mean that he realized his situation, but more likely it indicates that he came to “his true self, his sane mind” (Bruce 581). The phrase was commonly applied to one who had been deranged but recovered his mind (Barnes 103). In this case, his soul.

No matter where you find yourself today, it’s not too late. You can stop feeding the pigs, and craving their food. You can stop working for the pig owners. You can come to yourself. You can come home to grace.

The prodigal said to himself, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (v. 17b). “Food to spare” translates a phrase which means to be surrounded by loaves as by a flood (Robertson 210). So, “I will set out and go back to my father” (v. 18a). But how could he? The legal documents were signed and executed. He had no further claims on the estate, no rights to his previous status. The father had no reason or obligation to receive such a sinful, dishonorable prodigal.

The young son knew it was so: he would declare to him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men” (vs. 18b-19). He “sinned”—the word means to miss the mark (Robertson 210), to miss the purpose and meaning of life. He sinned against heaven, against his heavenly Father. This recognition is the first step to genuine repentance, for all sin is first and foremost against our holy Father (cf. Psalm 51.4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight”).

And he sinned against his earthly father: “and against you.” He missed the mark with his family, with this man who loved him so much. And now it was too late to earn it back: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He could do nothing to deserve restoration. He was right, and repentant (Geldenhuys 408; Fitzmyer 1089).

So, his repentance sincere and his resolve sure, “he got up and went to his father” (v. 20a). But his father was not done with grace. The same grace which gave the inheritance the son did not earn, now refused to give the punishment he deserved. Refused to continue the consequences for sins his son confessed. He is just like our Father in heaven.

Here is one of the most poignant verses in all the word of God: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 20). The father had been looking for his son, from the moment he left to the moment he returned (Robertson 210). He was “filled with compassion” for this son now limping back in rags and repentance. He “ran” to his son, regardless of Eastern dignity and the proprieties of advancing years (Bruce 581), exactly the opposite of the way his son has come home to him (Barnes 105).

He “kissed him,” in language which means to kiss fervently and frequently, over and over again (Bruce 581; Robertson 210). This act was the ancient sign of forgiveness (Rienecker 187; Fitzmyer 1089). When King David kissed Absalom, his wayward and sinful son, he extended to him this same forgiveness (2 Samuel 14.33). Now the father gave such grace to his shocked and sinful boy.

The prodigal started his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). But his father wouldn’t let him finish. He heard enough. He heard words of repentance from a heart of grief and guilt and genuine sorrow. And that was all he needed to hear.

The father welcomed the boy as his son. He was “justified”—”just as if I’d never sinned.” He was restored, publicly and powerfully. He received “the best robe” (v. 22a), a stately garment coming down to the feet, worn by kings (Robertson 211), replacing the wretched rags the boy wore home (Bruce 582). A ring was placed on his finger (v. 22b), Jewish tradition for one honored as his father’s deputy (Rienecker 187; Esther 8.2). The son was not only received, but promoted. And he was given “sandals on his feet” (v. 22c). No slaves wore sandals, only sons (Bruce 582).

But the father was not done with grace: “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate” (v. 23). Wealthy landowners kept a calf fattened for festive occasions. And so the father kept the calf, perhaps hoping for his son’s return and the party he would give in his honor (Robertson 211).

Why the celebration? “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24a). “This my son” is the literal wording. The father claimed his boy publicly, introducing him to attendants who did not know him from before he left for the far country. And telling the world that he was proud of his boy. He had been “dead” spiritually (cf. Romans 6.13; Revelation 3.1; Ephesians 2.1-5), but now he was alive. He had been lost, but now he is found. “So they began to celebrate” (v. 24b).

The prodigal thought he was coming home to face wrath and works, and deservedly so. But he found instead grace and gifts. Not grace he must earn, for that is no grace at all. Grace he could only receive in wonder, faith, and joy.

Theologian Paul Tillich described such an encounter with true grace, in words so meaningful they deserve a slow and careful reading:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.

“It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’

“If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”

The father in the story did not love his son because he came home. His son could come home because his father loved him. Our Father does not give us grace if we believe, or repent, or trust. We can believe, and repent, and trust because he gives us grace.

The prodigal “came to himself,” then came home. Is there a Father waiting for you to do the same? Looking even now at your soul in the far country? Waiting, robe and ring and sandals in hand? Ready to give what you cannot earn or deserve? Ready to welcome you home?

Giving what we have received

But the story is not done. We know what happened to the younger brother. But what of the elder? He was “in the field” (v. 25a), hard at his job, doing work his younger brother had abandoned to him. Coming near the house “he heard music and dancing” (v. 25b). “Music” translates the Greek word sumphonos, from which we get “symphony.” The musicians were entertainers hired by the father for his son’s party.

And everyone danced to their music. Dancing was common at Jewish feasts (Judges 21.21), at times of triumph (Judges 11.34), and at times of joy (Psalm 30.11-12; Jeremiah 31.4, 13). But why? The older brother “called one of the servants and asked him what was going on” (v. 26). And he got his answer: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound” (v. 27). Note Jesus’ explicit words: “your brother, your father.”

But his brother “became angry” (v. 28a)—the words mean he “flew into a rage” (Robertson 212). Long resentment towards his wayward brother, coupled with work done to compensate for his failures, was combined with the public humiliation the prodigal has caused them all. Wanting no part of this celebration, he “refused to go in” (v. 28b).

So his father came to him, rushing out just as he had rushed earlier in the day to his younger brother. He “pleaded with him” (v. 28c), the tense indicating that he “kept on beseeching him” (Rienecker 188; Robertson 212). But the older would have none of it: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (v. 29a). We wonder if his “slavery” indicates a secret desire to do what his younger brother had done. He “never” disobeyed—the tense means that he did not err even once (Rienecker 188).

“Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (v. 29b). To hear him tell the story, his life was nothing but drudgery and work, slaving for a father who was little more than an employer. We cannot believe that it was really so, or that it was the father’s fault if it was. No father could extend such marvelous grace to one son without offering it to the other.

Now we see into the older brother’s true soul: “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (v. 30). Not “my brother” but “this son of yours,” a Greek expression of great contempt (Rienecker 188; Barnes 106). No one mentioned prostitutes before he made his accusation, a charge for which he could have no support. Barclay may be right: “He, no doubt, suspected his brother of the sins he himself would have liked to commit” (206).

But the father showed his older son the same grace he has given to the younger: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (v. 31). Despite his reproofs, his accusations, his charges, this man was still his son. The estate belonging to him was still his. Nothing had changed. Though the father had the right to reprove and reject such a malicious and slanderous boy, he refused.

Instead he explained: “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 32). “We had to celebrate”—there is urgency here, for whenever a child comes home, his family must celebrate. The Greek says “to be merry”—deep-seated joy, hilarity beyond words (Robertson 213). “This brother of yours”—the father’s point is clear. The father’s son, and his son’s brother, was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

The older brother offers us two lessons. The first: keep working in the fields. But not as a slave but a son. Motivated not by obligation to our Master but by gratitude for his grace.

Legends always grow up around famous people. Here is one of my favorite Paderewski stories. A mother took her young son to hear the famous pianist, so as to encourage him in his own progress on the piano. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and went to greet her. This was her son’s chance. He bolted for the curtains obscuring the stage from the crowd. The house lights dimmed, the concert was about to begin, and the mother found her son missing. In the next moment the curtains parted and spotlights focused on the Steinway on the stage gleaming with polish.

In horror, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” At that moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moving to the piano. He whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.” Then leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began creating a bass part. With his right hand he added a running obligato. Together they performed a duet for the ages.

So it is with our performance on the instrument built by our Father. As we work he works. What we create is far less our ability and far more his. He does so much more with us than we can do for him. Our job is simply to be obedient, to play in gratitude for his grace, and to trust his hands to do the rest.

The father gave to his older son what was not his, just as he did so for the younger. Neither of them earned life, care, or compassion. Neither created the wealth he inherited. Neither deserved the compassion he received. Both were called to work with the father—not from obligation but gratitude.

What motivates you to teach your class? To give your time and abilities and finances to God’s Kingdom? To study this lesson?

The second lesson: give to others what you have received. Extend to others the grace God has given to you. You have received the blessing of God. Now give to a prodigal what the Father has bestowed on you.

Grady Nutt was a wonderful Christian comic and a deeply devoted believer. In college I heard him tell this week’s parable, and ask this question: If you were the prodigal, who would you want to greet you at the gate—the father or the older brother?

We have studied the two sons of Jesus’ famous parable. Which are you—the prodigal in the far country, squandering all God has given you in rebellion? Perhaps. But it is more likely that someone reading this commentary to prepare a Sunday school lesson is tempted to be the older brother. Serving in the fields, working for the Father. Will you give the grace of God to those entrusted to your care this week? Will they see the compassion, acceptance, and love of your Lord? Will you give what you have been given?

The famous preacher Samuel Chadwick once announced to his congregation, “I am going to preach on the third Son in the parable of the prodigal son” (cited in Morgan 266). Who is the third? The one who taught this parable. The one who sings with his Father when a prodigal comes home. Will you join his song?

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.”

What motivates us?

Let’s apply Jesus’ words to our church first, and then to our personal lives. What motivates Park Cities Baptist Church? Who is the audience of our ministries and activities? For whose sake do we do what we do?

Our vision is clear, and given to us by our Lord: “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Disciples are fully-devoted followers of the Lord Jesus. So, we are here to help people follow Jesus.

Our church exists to “help”—to minister, to serve.

To help “people.” Success is not how big our programs become, but how effectively our people follow Christ.

To help people “follow”—as a lifestyle, not just a weekend religion.

To help people follow “Jesus,” to know him personally and eternally.

This is Jesus’ vision, so it must be ours.

Our values are clear.

We exist to evangelize the lost, then equip the saved for their ministries, then engage them in those ministries so they can evangelize the lost.

Remember the difference between evangelism and discipleship: if I won one person a day to Christ for 33 years, 12,045 would be saved. But if I won and discipled one person a year, and they in turn won and discipled another person next year while I did the same, and so on, in 33 years, more than eight billion would be saved.

And our power is clear.

As we exalt Christ, he empowers us to evangelize, equip, and engage. Worship is the center of all we do, for we exist to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Only then can we love our neighbor as ourselves. We must worship passionately before we can live biblically, serve joyfully, and love practically.

And so the purpose of worship, as this text makes clear, is not to impress you but to impress God. As Stephen Holcomb has said, worship is encountering God. You are the performers, not the ones on this platform. The sanctuary is the stage; this platform is the sideline, where the coaches stand and help. We send in the plays, but you must perform them. We encourage, but you must exalt. God is your audience of One.

And so we select music and message each week which will best help you encounter God. On some Sundays we use traditional elements; sometimes we use classical elements; sometimes we use more contemporary elements—all depending on the text, or the season of the year, or the world circumstances of that week. Our music and message do not depend on what we on this platform “like,” but on what you need to encounter God that week. We are successful to the degree that you encounter God each week.

Now, is our motive clear? Do we help people follow Jesus for his sake, or for ours? Are we trying to build a bigger church, or a bigger Kingdom? Do we worship for us, or for God? Is our church for us, or for God?

Corrie ten Boom was asked if it was difficult for her to remain humble. Her reply was simple: “When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the back of a donkey, and everyone was waving palm branches and throwing garments on the road, singing praises, do you think that for one moment it ever entered the head of that donkey that any of that was for him? If I can be that donkey on which Jesus Christ rides to his glory, I give him all the praise and honor.” So must we.


Now, let’s close personally. What motivates you? Why do you do your “acts of righteousness”?

Why are you trying to succeed at school? At work? At home? Is it for God’s glory or yours?

Why do you do your “acts of righteousness” at church? Why do you teach your class? Serve on your committee? Perform your ministry? Sing in the choir? Why do I preach? Is it for God’s glory or ours?

John Adams: “I believe that there is no one principle which predominates in human nature so much in every stage of life, from the cradle to the grave, in males and females, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, high and low, as [the] passion for superiority” (David McCullough, John Adams, 170).

The ancient Roman historian Tacitus agreed: “The desire for glory clings even to the best men longer than any other passion.”

If “ego” is “edging God out,” what can we do to prevent this? To be sure that we do our “acts of righteousness” for God’s glory and not our own? I have two suggestions.

First, every time you are tempted to pride yourself in what you do, make the conscious decision to be humble instead. To do this for God’s glory alone. Be intentional about this. Erasmus, the outstanding Reformation-era scholar, offers brilliant advice: “use temptation as a means to virtue. If your inclinations are to be greedy and selfish, increase your donations to charity. If you tend toward boasting, make a deliberate effort to be humble in all things. This way you can find in temptation a renewed determination to increase in piety. This procedure is the one that most galls Satan. It makes him afraid to tempt you because nothing is more hateful to the Author of Evil than that he should be responsible for some good” (Handbook of the Militant Christian, 1503, twelfth rule).

Second, pray about this daily. Jesus stands ready to help you. And you need his help. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great English Bible teacher, prayed every day of his life this prayer: “Lord, keep me from pride.” How long has it been since you made this your prayer?

The largest statue ever carved from a single piece of stone weighed more than two million pounds. It was a figure of Ramses I, the Egyptian Pharaoh who died in 1317 B.C. When the children of Israel left Egypt, they passed his enormous statue.

Who would have dreamed that these ragged former slaves, trudging out into the hardships of the unknown desert, would amount to anything? But today Ramses’ statue lies broken in the sands of Egypt. Meanwhile, the movement God began with those children of Israel, men and women willing to live in God’s will and for his glory, have been used by his hand to change our world forever. To touch your soul and mind. To glorify our Maker and King.

They win the only Oscar that matters. Will you?

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).

To refuse this servant was to refuse his master, a great and grave insult. But tragically, unbelievably, “they all alike began to make excuses” (v. 18). Every person who had accepted the master’s first invitation now refused to come. Their meal had been cooked, their place prepared, but now they declined.

Three examples of their excuses were offered. The first: “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it” (v. 18). One typically sees the farm before buying it. Some ancient purchases did require a postpurchase inspection, but it could be done at any time (Boch 252). The field would still be waiting after the banquet was done.

Here is a man who “allowed the claims of business to usurp the claims of God.” Unfortunately, “It is still possible for a man to be so immersed in this world that he has no time for worship, and even no time to pray” (Barclay 194). Jesus gives us the antidote to such materialism: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.33).

The second excuse is no better than the first: “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out” (v. 19). Most landowners had only one or two oxen; this man is clearly wealthy by ancient standards (Boch 252). He could easily have sent a servant to do this work for him. And he had no reason to hurry. He would have tried the oxen before buying them, or could wait until the banquet was done to do so.

If the first man let materialism keep him from God, the second was the victim of “the claims of novelty”: “It often happens that when people enter into new possessions they become so taken up with them that the claims of worship and of God get crowded out. . . . It is perilously easy for a new game, a new hobby, even a new friendship, to take up the time that should be kept for God” (Barclay 194).

The third excuse is worst of all: “I just got married, so I can’t come” (v. 20). This man knew he would be getting married when he accepted the first invitation to the banquet. An engagement period typically lasted a year or more in ancient Israel, with the date for the actual wedding determined months beforehand. And the new wife would have been happy to go to the feast with her new husband if asked (Robertson 198).

The law excused a man newly married from war (Deuteronomy 24.5), but not from his social obligations. Here a man refuses to honor his commitment to the banquet, and blames his wife for his failure. Barclay is right: “It is one of the tragedies of life when good things crowd out the claims of God. There is no lovelier thing than a home and yet a home was never meant to be used selfishly. They live best together who live with God; they serve each other best who also serve their fellow-men; the atmosphere of a home is most lovely when those who dwell within it remember that they are also members of the great family and household of God” (194).

No wonder the owner of the house “became angry” (v. 21). “Angry” is actually the word for being “enraged” (Bruce 574). His honor has been insulted in the extreme. The entire town knew of his banquet, and would now know of this grave injury to the man’s honor. There is no surprise in his reaction. But his solution to the crisis would surprise every person who heard this parable from our Lord.

From this portion of the parable we learn a significant fact: we must come when God calls us. It is not enough to believe that the owner of the house exists. It is not enough to know that we are invited to his banquet. It is not even enough to decide that we will attend. We must come. We must commit our lives to his call. In this sense, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2.17).

Invite everyone you know

Have you accepted the invitation of Jesus to his banquet in heaven? Have you made him your Savior and Lord? Have you surrendered your life to his purpose and will? If so, if you know that you will be in paradise with him (Luke 23.43), here’s what you must do now: invite everyone you know to join you there.

The master of the feast “ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame'” (Luke 14.21). “Go out”—go to them. Don’t wait for them to come. They likely do not know they are welcome at the feast. They have no way to come.

Go “quickly,” urgently. The feast is ready; there is no time to waste. The harvest is white, the time is at hand. This is the only day we have: “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6.2). None of us has been promised tomorrow. Go today.

Go to the “streets,” the broad roads traveled by a great variety of people. Go to the “alleys,” the small lanes or side paths (Liefeld 978). Go to all the streets and alleys “of the town.” Those living here likely heard about the feast, and probably envied those invited. But they would never expect to be admitted. Go and give them the good news.

Bring in the “poor,” though Jews thought the impoverished were being punished by God. Bring in the “crippled,” though the physically challenged were barred from full participation in Jewish worship (Rienecker 184-5; cf. Leviticus 21.17-23). Bring in the “blind,” though the Jews saw blindness as a sign of spiritual judgment (cf. John 9.1-3). Bring the “lame,” because they cannot come on their own. None of these unfortunates would ever expect to be welcomed at the estate of this wealthy master. None would come unless invited and brought.

The servant was obedient to his master: “Sir, what you ordered has been done” (v. 22). But this is a great feast, for “there is still room.” This is a banquet “on a grand scale, worthy emblem of the magnificence of Divine grace” (Bruce 574).

There is still room indeed. And we are grateful: “What a sad message it would be if we were compelled to go and say, ‘There is no more room—heaven is full—not another one can be saved. No matter what their prayers, or tears, or sighs, they cannot be saved. Every place is filled, every seat occupied.’ But, thanks be to God, this is not the message which we are to bear; and if there yet is room, come, sinners, young and old, and enter into heaven. Fill up that room, that heaven may be full of the happy and the blessed. If any part of the universe is to be vacant, O let it be the dark world of woe!” (Barnes 98).

There will be room at this table for “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev 7.9). There is room at this table for all who will come to the mercy of God.

Now the servant was sent to “the roads and country lanes” (v. 23). The “roads” were the main streets leading from town to town. The “country lanes” were hedges, footpaths between fields. These hedges were typically made of thorns, planted thick to keep cattle out of the vineyard. Those who lived and worked there would be poor laborers, the lowest class, people of great poverty (Barnes 98).

Those the servant would find on these roads and lanes would be people who did not know the host at all. They had no idea of his existence or his invitation (Boch 253). Jesus’ immediate reference may have been to the Gentiles who lived outside the Jewish community (Bruce 574). In a larger sense, the parable points us to those who have heard of our master (in the “town”) and those who have not. Every person is invited.

The servant was told to “make them come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14.23). The word “make” is the word for “compel.” But it does not mean to cause a person to come against his or her will. It means to persuade, to convince, to motivate. It is found in Matthew 14.22, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side”; it is found in Acts 26.11, “I tried to force them to blaspheme”; and in Galatians 6.12, “trying to compel you to be circumcised.”

This text must never be used to justify religious persecution. We cannot coerce people into the Christian faith. Tragically, Augustine and others used it as a pretext for such religious coercion, and it was later cited in defending the Inquisition and other campaigns against “heretics” (Barclay 193).

The meaning is simple: we must do all we can to encourage people to attend the banquet in heaven with us. We must not accept excuses. Just as a physician would not let a man dying of cancer excuse himself from treatment, so we must not allow our friends and family to excuse themselves from the kingdom of God. At the end of the day, the decision must be theirs. But we will do all we can to help them make the right choice.

With this result: “so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet” (Luke 14.23-24). If we will not come to Jesus while on earth, we cannot be with him in heaven, for “man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9.27).

Philip Yancey tells the story of just such an unusual wedding banquet, from the Boston Globe’s account in June of 1990. A woman, accompanied by her fiancé, went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston to order the wedding meal. They arranged for an expensive party, with a bill of $13,000. After leaving a check for half the amount as a down payment, they went home to look at wedding announcements.

The day the announcements were supposed to be mailed, the groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”

His angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, to discover that she had signed a binding contract and could only receive $1,300 back. She had two options: go ahead with the banquet, or forfeit the rest of her down payment. The jilted bride made a wonderful decision: she turned her banquet into a real party.

Ten years before, this woman had been living in a homeless shelter. Now, after years of hard work and progress, she had a sizeable nest egg. She decided to use her savings to treat those who were where she had been.

So it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a memorable party. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken, “in honor of the groom.” She sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people who expected to peel half-gnawed pizza off cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedoes served hors d’oeuvres to senior adults walking on crutches and canes. Bag ladies, vagrants, and drug addicts took one night from the hard life of the streets outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced late into the night.

And so will we, one day. Who will join you? When you see Jesus at his table, he will ask, “Who did you bring me?” What will be your answer?

To extend the kingdom of God, invite everyone you know to its banquet. Tell your friends and family that it will be a joyful, eternal feast. Do all you can to convince them to join you at the table. Pray for those you don’t know. Support missionaries and ministries which will reach them. Go yourself. Do all you can to bring as many to Jesus as you can. And you will spend eternity in the joyful knowledge that others are in heaven because God used you.

The rabbis had a story which seems appropriate as a footnote to Jesus’ parable. A man died and went to heaven. Before he entered, he told the Lord that he had always been curious about hell. He wondered if he could see it before he entered heaven. So the Lord sent the man with an angel to hell.

The man walked into a banquet hall, and found a table heaped to overflowing with every kind of good food. Seated around it were thousands and thousands of people, starving to death. He couldn’t understand why, until he watched them eat. Each had a long wooden spoon. The spoon was so long that when the people used it to pick up food, they couldn’t get it to their mouths. They would spend eternity so close to food, and yet starving.

The man was horrified, and implored the angel to take him to heaven. So he did. There the man found another banquet table, identical to the one in hell. Heaped to overflowing with every kind of good food, surrounded by people with the same long spoons he had seen in hell. But these people looked well fed and happy. He couldn’t understand, until he watched them eat.

The people in hell tried to feed themselves. The people in heaven fed each other.