Ego trips have always been and will probably always be a part of human history. National arrogance, election boasting and self-promotion are both old fashioned and new. Jesus addressed that very issue in Luke 14:1-14. Such pushing and shoving over power and prestige also occurs within the church, where it contradicts the most basic tenets of our faith. Jesus taught a parable about guests and hosts of wedding feasts and parties. The object lesson was that a guest ought to take the lowest place and a host ought to include the lowest people as guests. Jesus’ simple advice is seldom heeded. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. True long-term success in life is not gained by arrogant self-importance, but by humble and realistic self-assessment as no better than anyone else.
Whether it be Chinatown, Harlem or a Gypsy camp, we are all somewhat acquainted with ghettos. They can be places to fear, where those of a different race or culture seem unwelcome. Christian churches can seem like that to those on the outside. Even friendly churches that are tolerant of a diversity of opinions can seem suspiciously inhospitable to outsiders. How do we overcome this “Christian ghetto” syndrome? Jesus offered some very helpful advice in a world where rich, poor and outcasts would eventually meet together in local house churches. In Luke 14:1-14 he mentioned the kind of hospitality he expected of believers. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. In ancient society these were often considered to be misfits. Do our churches have a broadly welcoming atmosphere of open hospitality without regard to socioeconomic status?
Have you ever been in one of those churches where you were told touch not, taste not, don’t do this and don’t do that? That’s one thing I love about Jesus. He breaks the rules — the ones made up by mere mortals. One silly old religious rule that people had was against healing anyone on the day of rest. Where’s that in the Bible? It isn’t, and Jesus pointed that out in Luke 14:1-14. Why do churches make up burdensome rules? Do they not make us rely upon people instead of God? Do not our traditions too often stand in the way of the teachings of Jesus? Should we perhaps follow Jesus and break the rules? Will we then find true salvation from all the oppressive chains that bind us? Will we then discover faith, hope and love?
Some commentators of Jesus’ parable regarding guests and hosts seem to imply that he is encouraging us to act humble for personal gain. The parable is found in the passage Luke 14:1-14. The idea behind false humility is deceiving others so that they will think well of us. Did Jesus teach us to manipulate and mislead others by pretending? True humility is sincere, not deceptive. It literally means that we honestly face the reality that we are only a breath away from returning to dust, humus. Yet, we naturally run from humility. Wealth and possessions and entertainment deceive us into believing that we have a pseudo-immortality, that we can save ourselves or that we are somehow “self-made.” Nothing could be further from the truth. True humility is not faked. It is simply an honest self-estimation without flattery or deception.
In Luke 14:1-14 we see how Jesus observed the pushing and shoving for position at a Sabbath banquet. His commentary is as relevant today as then. We live in a world where greedy people taking advantage of others are given higher places of honor than who give in self-sacrifice and humility. So, what is the real place of honor today? We may imagine the CEO of a large corporation who has a quarter billion dollar bonus and salary package with houses as big as hotels, access to a private jet, chauffeured limos and audiences with national leaders as having a real place of honor. Such honor is temporary and artificial. Yet a humble person who is hospitable to the poor, crippled, lame and blind has a real place of honor where it counts, at the resurrection of the righteous.
Some of the first hospitals were created by the early Christian community as places of hospital-ity for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:1-14). There was usually no charge for the hospitality although those who could, often helped with some of the work. These ancient hospitals also had another purpose, they also housed traveling strangers. Hospitality as a business was almost completely unknown. Instead, hospitality was seen as an ethical and moral requirement of local communities in several ancient cultures. Christian communities taught people to have a room for strangers in their homes and some even built special facilities specifically for the hospitality of not only the sick, but also traveling strangers. How far we have fallen to where hospitals and hospitality have become big business, charging large sums and making extravagant incomes for some.
Ancient societies, especially Christian communities were hospitable to the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind (Luke 14:1-14) and to strangers (Hebrews 13:2). Yet, there is an unanswered question of security. How did such peoples protect themselves from crime and prevent strangers from taking advantage of them? This too was addressed by ancient Christian communities in several ways. First of all, ancient societies did not have such a privacy mentality as we do today, rather the community was there for mutual protection. Homes were designed to be only semi-private, with open access for mutual policing and security. Also, ancient Christian communities readily welcomed strangers, but if their stay was to be longer than a day or two they were expected to contribute to the work of the household. Perhaps we can learn from their greater sense of community.
If we could choose any three guests in the entirety of human history for Sunday lunch who would we invite? Many of us would include Jesus on that list, but do we? Jesus said that what we have done for the hungry, thirsty, foreigner, naked, sick and prisoners we have done for him (Matthew 25:31-46). If we think about it we may not want to invite Jesus, because he had a way of making a scene when invited to dinner. In Luke 14:1-14 he was a guest at a party and remarked as to how people behaved, jockeying for social advantage and playing political games. Then he gave us all a list of people that we ought to always include. He said that we ought to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.
When we have an exaggerated view of ourselves, we will often try to exalt ourselves in front of other people. We may do it by grabbing the best seats at a gathering of friends (Luke 14:1-14) or by simply bragging. Self-praise stinks. Another symptom of an ego-driven life is the temptation to put others down. We see both self-praise and devaluing of others throughout life and despise it. We may ignore those who we consider to be not as pretty, or not as smart, or not as wealthy. Such an attitude is living a fiction. The reality is that every human being is equally as important and Christ expects us to live in such a manner as to acknowledge that as a fact. That means that we don’t exalt ourselves and we treat those who others disdain with respect.
Luke 13:10-17 is about two people in bondage, a religious person and a crippled woman. The one was in bondage to human traditions and the letter of the law. The other was in bondage to a crippling spirit. Both needed the healing touch of Jesus. Israel had been in slavery for hundreds of years without rest. Then came the Exodus and the Ten Commandments and the blessing of a rest day. It was a day with much meaning for a people just freed from Egyptian slavery where they worked without rest making bricks. Though devout, the Pharisee missed the point of the weekly rest day. The purpose of the law was freedom not bondage. Just as Jesus freed the crippled woman, so too is any regulation or tradition no good if it leaves us in bondage instead of freedom.
Our world promises us freedom but it is a sham. It may be a car, a get rich quick scheme, a political or religion system. But none of those things can guarantee the freedom that Jesus promises. Cars are a burden. They enslave us to debt and the daily commute. Get rich quick schemes have been engaged in by banks and wall street traders leaving ruined lives in their wake. Political systems of this world enslave us to unbridled regulations and burdensome overreach. There is a spirit which enslaves and even religious people can fall prey to it. This spirit had also crippled a woman for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-17) and those enslaved to human religion refused to give her freedom on the Sabbath day. No human scheme of this world set her free. Jesus gave it to her.
Religion ought to set us free but sometimes holds us in bondage (Luke 13:10-17). What better day to set someone free from sickness than the Sabbath day, a day of freedom from our week’s labor. A rest day also pictures our rest in Christ. New Testament believers keep a Sabbath in the spirit not the letter of the law and so most Christians take a Sabbath of convenience according to either western custom or the necessity of providing for a family. Most westerners may find Sunday convenient, but others like doctors, firefighters, police officers and pastors will choose another day of the week. Without a proper Sabbath, our bodies suffer and we get sick. Our spiritual lives become weaker. A Sabbath day ought to free us so as to provide rest for our bodies and rejuvenation of our spirits.
A proxy anointing is where one person is anointed for the healing of another. It is not in the Bible, though prayers for the sick are. Jesus once healed a centurion’s servant from afar (Matthew 5:8-13), but he did not anoint the officer. The idea may come from the Mormon ritual of baptism for the dead and is found among some Pentecostal churches. One mainstream church bans it and a Catholic priest believed that it made a mockery of anointing the sick. Jesus went to the sick (Luke 13:10-17). James instructed the sick to call for the elders, NOT send a proxy (James 5:13-16) and if the elder cannot come, we have the example of Paul sending forth cloths to the sick (Acts 19:11-12). Religious novelties are risky, but biblical guidelines are always a safe haven.
Healing is described in many passages throughout the Bible and sometimes we Christians are tempted to turn one or another passage into a formula. For instance, the passage in James 5:13-16 can seem like a formula with prayer, faith and anointing oil, but we must not forget the many other examples throughout the Bible where people were healed, perhaps with a ritual such as dipping seven times into the Jordan or making mud from spit and dirt. Other times no ritual was involved other than the touch of Jesus. In Luke 13:10-17 a woman was healed by Jesus. When often the ingredient of faith is a vital part of the healing, in this story faith was not even mentioned. Unlike James’ instruction where the sick call for the elders, Jesus called the woman forward and simply touched her.
In Luke 12:49-56 Jesus focused on conflict in the Christian life. In his story of the sower and the seed (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) Jesus spoke of seed sown in three areas of trouble. There are attacks from Satan on life’s path, persecution on life’s rocky ground, and life’s worries and the deceitfulness of riches among the thorns. With so much conflict how can we be fruitful? The parable of the sower and the seed gives us a clue in that we hear the word and understand. We need to see that Jesus’ warning of conflict was addressed to the twelve disciples who were the most zealous and not the larger group of 70 or 120 or more. Those Christians who are most zealous and least complacent often put making peace with God ahead of making peace with family.
A naturalist once picked up a cocoon and feeling sorry for the butterfly about to emerge he pulled out his pocket knife and slit the cocoon open. The butterfly which emerged was weak and unable to muster the strength to fly. So it is with our children. If we pamper them too much, they will grow up weak and unable to survive the trials of life. America became a great country because people had to struggle and build a country from the rough and hostile environment. Now so much of America lives in luxury with grocery shelves filled with food from afar. And we are a civilization in decline. We don’t have the toughness any longer. We are soft and spoiled. Perhaps that is why Jesus allows his church to go through conflict (Luke 12:49-56), to make us strong.
While some conflict is unavoidable and possibly even necessary (Luke 12:49-56) not all conflict is. For instance, the conflict between conservatives and liberals in the church is often just an argument over two sides of the same coin. Conservatives are concerned with righteous living, piety. Liberals are concerned with social justice, loving their neighbor in action. When it comes to the Gospel, conservatives are concerned with telling the good news, liberals are concerned with being the good news. Both are needed. We need to live moral lives AND seek justice for the poor. We need to both announce the good news of salvation in Jesus AND be the good news to those in need. Both conservatives and liberals have weaknesses. We cannot be self-righteous about our side of the coin, but realize that we can learn from each other.
Are we free of conflict in western Christianity because we live in freedom-loving countries or are we relatively free of conflict because our Christianity is watered down? Jesus promised conflict, a baptism of fire (Luke 12:49-56). When a church is in conflict we often assume it is because they are carnal Christians, more worldly minded than heavenly. While that is sometimes the case, it may not always be. The church is where the battle between evil and good begins. The church is the war room for the battle that we take to our neighborhoods. Not everyone wants to make peace with God. Not everyone wants to hear about Jesus. Not everyone wants to hear about a change of heart from evil to good. Sometimes, rather than stand up for Jesus, we make peace with the devil. That is failure.
Naive Christians are shocked by it. Older Christians try to avoid it. But, where human beings are conflict is unavoidable. We cannot always run and hide. Sometimes it hits us square in the face. So, we should not be shocked that it sometimes comes around, and be prepared for it when it does. When Jesus preached about his bringing conflict (Luke 12:49-56), he was on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified. We must also remember that although in our country converting to Christianity sometimes causes family division, in Muslim, Hindu and many other societies it almost always does. Conflict can be good for us. That’s why Jesus said that he came to bring fire, because like fire purifies metals conflict can purify us. A Christian who has seen many battles is deeper than one who has been mollycoddled.
A false gospel of health and wealth is a popular message among televangelists, but it is materialistic and not spiritual. Such preachers cherry pick only positive scriptures and ignore the balance of those warning against materialism and demanding self-sacrifice. Just as in ancient times people hire false prophets to preach smooth things. We can’t handle the truth. Today’s false prophets live in million dollar mansions and fly private jets. They ignore Jesus’ teachings of denying ourselves and taking up our cross, and ignore the question of what profit is it if a man gains the whole world but loses his own soul? They ignore Jesus’ warnings to the wealthy and encouragement to a rich young man to sell his possessions. They ignore his encouragement for all of us to sell unnecessary possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12:32-40).
People sometimes portray the poor as lazy and a drain on the public purse. Is that really the whole truth? Are there not also dozens of other reasons why people become poor? Recently I have spoken to people who have lost their homes due to medical bills and heard of doctors who refuse to treat the elderly because there is not enough money in it. When local jobs are sent overseas to countries without a minimum wage, many hard-working folks are forced into low incomes and poverty. Jesus said something remarkable defending the poor. He challenged believers to sell their possessions and give to the poor. This was not an appeal for donations to the church, but for the poor. When we neglect the poor or falsely accuse them, are we not also ignoring a fundamental of Christ’s teachings?
As I watched the elaborate ceremony, people dressed in fine regalia, precision movements and people kneeling in practiced unison, I could only think how far distant it was from the way that Jesus did things. It is not a sin to be dressed well, nor is it evil to have order and majesty in a church service. There are examples of that in both Old Testament practice and the brief descriptions of heaven that we read in the Bible. However, none of those things is central to Christianity. Without a care for the poor and weak among us, is our religion impure and hollow? Without a willingness to sell our possessions so that someone else may eat, is our religion just a cheap fake and not the Christianity of Christ? Liturgical pomp is no substitute for care of the poor.
If you were to ask someone on the street to describe a Christian what would they say? Many people I know would describe Christians as picky critics, judgmental and narrow minded. And I believe they are unfortunately often right. But that is merely a description of weak human beings and is not the Christianity taught by its founder Jesus Christ. How many would describe Christians as those who are glad to give to the poor? Unfortunately a brand of so-called Christian politics has developed where we find excuses not to give to the poor. How strange is that? Rather than rushing to find ways to help the poor and needy, somehow we believe that Jesus’ command to give to the poor is excluded from Christian politics? What kind of description of Christians is that? Do I hear the word selfish?
To some Christians, words like social gospel and social justice carry images of liberal Christians who don’t believe in a living Jesus Christ and the Gospel that he preached. It seems that the good news has been substituted for just another do-good charity which takes care of physical needs and neglects spiritual needs. As in all things human, there is partial truth on both sides of the argument. What is really important is not our modern terms or perceptions, but what Jesus actually taught. When it comes to some issues which are demanded of Christians, Jesus is quite clear. In fact his request is couched in typical hyperbolic Jesus-terms. He simply said, sell your possessions and give to the poor. If that’s a liberal pinko agenda, then I don’t know too many on the left or right who are willing.
In Luke 12:32-40 Jesus says to be ready for his return. Much speculation as to what that readiness concerns seems taken out of context. Some have said be ready in prayer. Others have said to be ready in spreading the Gospel. Still others have said to be ready in obedience to this or that tradition or command of men. Yet none of those things explains the context of Jesus’ instructions, where he focused on giving to the poor. There are many versions of easy Christianity. Being involved in a church, keeping religious feasts, traditions, and being a good neighbor, praying and waiting on miracles do not necessarily have to involve much sacrifice. However, could it just be that some small part of being ready for Christ’s return involves hard Christianity such as selling possessions and giving to the poor?
Some of us have wisely prepared for the future with a savings buffer for bad times and retirement. Many of us are probably not prepared. There is another kind of preparation that Jesus encourages us to do. In Luke 12:32-40 he says to invest in eternity by giving to the poor. In so doing we provide purses for ourselves that will not wear out and a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted or fail. Even the best retirement plans can be wiped out in a moment by war, recession or disaster. Treasures that we accumulate are always in danger of theft. The world’s greatest treasures eventually decay and rot. Only one treasure is permanent and incorruptible: treasure in heaven. When we give to the poor, we reap eternal dividends. Let’s prepare for Christ’s return by investing now.
While many Christians are stingy and selfish, some seem to be the exact opposite. Some believe that their good works can get them into heaven and are driven by guilt rather than love for neighbor. What are our motives? The challenge is to do good works, not out of necessity, but out of love. At the beginning of his challenge to give to the poor in Luke 12:32-40 Jesus reminded us that our Father in heaven has been pleased to give us the kingdom. We do not earn it. It is a gift. However, once having been given that gift, we are faced with a decision. What do we invest in heaven and what do we invest on earth? Are we living heavenly lives now? We don’t give to qualify for eternity with God. That is a free gift.
In the act of caring for the sick or feeding the hungry, we are doing so to Jesus. The Bible describes God’s kingdom as coming yet also here. It means the rule of God, and that means that as we submit to that rule it is also here now. In Luke 12:32-40 Jesus reminded us that God has been pleased to give us the kingdom, not that he will be pleased to give us the kingdom. It is a gift that has already been given. All we need do is accept it by submitting to that rule. And what is God’s kingdom doing? Among other things, it is detaching itself from materialism and giving to the poor. Where our treasure is, is a litmus test of where our hearts are, in the kingdom of this world or of God.
Who would have ever thought of a yard sale as religious. Some of us enjoy yard sales, especially if it means getting rid of some stuff that we don’t need, accumulated junk that clutters up our lives. We may also look forward to a meal in a nice restaurant or perhaps even a new purchase with the money we made. Instead of spending the money we make on our next yard sale, perhaps there is a suggestion for us in the teachings of Jesus (Luke 12:32-40). Would we want to give the money to charity? As a pastor I spend a lot of time and effort preparing sermons and worship services. But all of that religious activity is worthless (Isaiah 1:10-20) if I am not involved in true religion (James 1:27) giving to the needy among us.
Accountants are paid pessimists, counterbalancing the optimism of entrepreneurs and evangelists. But there is one thing they don’t teach in accounting school, liquidating assets to give money to the poor (Luke 12:32-40). Nationally, bailouts of big business, space and military budgets pass while money for the poor always meets strong resistance. In business, we would rather spend money on R&D and M&A than help the poor. Individually, we would rather buy another boat or vacation home than help the poor. In a timeless principle, God condemns a nation that engages in religious worship but neglects the poor (Isaiah 1:10-20). God gave ancient Israel a national budget, the third year tithe specifically to help the poor, plus individual responsibility. Helping the needy is true religion and so important to God that he mentioned it throughout the Bible.
A culture of fear blocks out people’s ability to think and helps politicians get their way. But Jesus has not called us to a fear religion. He has called us to be people of faith. That’s why Jesus said to his disciples, Fear not little flock, literally meaning don’t be terrified. The phrase “little flock” specifically refers to the small group of disciples. Later that flock grew to 3,000 and millions more as the good news has now spread around the world. But, the temptation to feel terrorized is still with us. One of our biggest fears is still economic. We are tempted to hoard. But Jesus encourages us that hoarding is the opposite of faith. He wants us to sell some things that we don’t need for survival and give the money to the poor (Luke 12:32-40).
Recent scientific research has shown that selfish species die. For a species to thrive individuals must learn to communicate and cooperate. Like the brother who took the largest portion of the family inheritance (Luke 12:13-21) greed isolates us from our tribes. Community and family members withdraw their support believing that the selfish person will continue to take more than their fair share. Rather than living a shared life, with mutual support and protection, the greedy brother is now isolated and unprotected. Covetousness is therefore self-destructive behavior. In our greed we estrange those who would have been there in our hour of need. We isolate ourselves from our support mechanism. We destroy the world, our nation, our families and ourselves when we become greedy. Even in nature, insects and sheep know instinctively that to survive they must share and cooperate.
In the parable of the unjust inheritance (Luke 12:13-21) one brother seems to have been greedy for the larger share of the pie and the other seems to have been greedy for justice in the inheritance. Greedy people only trouble themselves and their own households (Proverbs 15:27). Favoritism and greed over inheritance drives family members apart. Before taking someone to court we ought to ask if it is worth it. Life is filled with financial injustices from bank fees to overcharging for services and unfair wages. If we spend a lifetime bitter over injustices and trying to right every wrong done to us, we won’t have time for living. It seems that Jesus was telling the young man to just let it go and get on with living a good life. Sometimes justice is just not worth pursuing.
A wicked man praises the greedy (Psalm 10:1-4). The greedy ambush their own lives (Proverbs 1:18-19) and destroy their families (Proverbs 15:27). They want more, but the righteous love to give (Proverbs 15:27). Greedy get rich quick schemes cause poverty (Proverbs 28:22). Greedy leaders destroy a nation (Proverbs 29:4). Greedy people feast on the suffering poor (Proverbs 30:14). Leaders who look to their own gain are like greedy dogs (Isaiah 56:10-11), out for dishonest gain, shedding innocent blood, oppressing and extorting (Jeremiah 22:15-17). Religious leaders are not immune to greed and wickedness (Luke 11:37-41). If we feel cheated in business or inheritance by others we can’t let their greed ruin our lives as it has theirs (Luke 12:13-21). Greed is idolatry and cannot enter God’s kingdom (Ephesians 5:5).
Was Jesus’ condemnation of greed (Luke 12:13-21) a denunciation of capitalism? Some people think so. But in its broadest definition capitalism includes all capital, even the shirt on our backs. Perhaps what Jesus was really against was evil forms of capitalism, selfish greed. Venice is a case study in the results of unrighteous capitalism. Once an affluent, open economy, the rich destroyed it through greed. Our world economies are under the same threat today, facing potential self-destruction as more and more of us work as poorly paid serfs to the greedy. Economists say that there is little difference today between the greedy American CEO and the Chinese Communist party plutocrat. Greed is bad for capitalism because the resulting fights between businesses, inside corporations and even among family members only destroy and do not create a shared wealth for all.
Jesus preached against greed (Luke 12:13-21). He even defined it within that context as a desire for an abundance of things, way beyond basic necessities and storing up for selfish purposes without being rich towards God. Elsewhere, Jesus taught that if we have two coats give one to the poor and he encouraged one rich young man to sell everything and give it to the poor. Yet others of his followers were quite wealthy. Even monks who give up everything can become quite greedy over one book. So, it’s not the amount that we own, but our attitude towards it. Wealth deceives us. The more we have the more we think we need and the more covetous we tend to become. At what level would you divest yourself of wealth and find ways to give most of it away?