As Jesus is the cornerstone upon which the Church is built, so are his teachings the unifying cornerstone of Christian doctrine.

Two kinds of laughter

How can a poor person laugh genuinely and a rich person’s laugh be empty (Luke 6:20-31)? How can a hungry person laugh with joy and a person with a full belly cry? How can those who cry now laugh joyfully and those who laugh now weep and mourn? How can the hated and rejected be filled with happiness and those who are flattered and well spoken of be filled with sorrows? Such are the paradoxes of Jesus’ teachings. There are two kinds of laughter. One is that of hardhearted laughing insults. Another is joyous laughter from heaven. Yet, even for coldhearted people there may be hope. The weeping of the callous and uncaring suggests that many of them will eventually find the path to true happiness, not in their wealth and abundance of food, but through their own suffering.

The trap of self

Doing the right thing is the right thing to do, but is salvation about our efforts? Being humble about our shortcomings is the right attitude to have but is salvation about remorse? After we have done everything right either in deed or humble attitude we can still miss the whole point. We can still despise those who have not measured up like the Pharisee despised the tax collector, or like we despise self-righteous religious people. Justification before God does not come about by all our efforts, nor an attitude of humility about our mistakes. Only his grace and mercy, his decision to forgive, does that (Luke 18:9-14). This parable has traps. We can focus on self, grateful we are not like the Pharisee or that we are humble. The focus is not on self but God and his mercy.

How to be a popular preacher

If we want to be popular preachers, there is a very simple formula in Luke 18:9-14. Tell people to be confident in their own righteousness and that they deserve honor above others. Flatter them that they are not like other people, extortioners, adulterers, evildoers or even others who pray with them. Beguile them that they are the best people in the best nation on earth. Let them them believe that their religious deeds and offerings have granted them God’s favor. All this boot-licking flattery will cause them misery in the end, but you want to be popular don’t you? Telling people to ask God for mercy on our many shortcomings will not get you popularity, but you will be doing your job, as long as you realize that you are also in need of our Father in heaven’s forgiveness.

How to be self-righteous

How can we be self-righteous? If we want to be holier-than-thou, we don’t have to go far for an excuse. Reasons to be conceited are many. Self-importance divides and separates us. We don’t really need to have a very large list of imagined superior attributes. We can ignore our many faults and choose a few traits where we feel exceptional and tell others including God about it. Could we imagine that we are superior in giving? Can we choose an expression of faith which we believe we perform more diligently? What if we accuse others of breaking various laws or denigrate their profession? When we allow a superior attitude to possess our souls, we tend to view others in harsh terms. And just like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, none of our self-righteous bragging makes us right with God.

The loyalist & the collaborator

Two men went up to the house of God to pray. One of them belonged to a group of people who had tenaciously preserved their faith in the face of harsh foreign occupation. The other belonged to a group of traitors who profited by collecting taxes imposed by the foreign occupying power. We would naturally think kindly of the loyalist and unsympathetically of the collaborator. Yet the parable in Luke 18:9-14 challenges us with an opposite conclusion. It also challenges us to rethink conclusions that we may have made about people. We simply don’t know a person’s inner attitude. We do not know whether the one is self-satisfied and judgmental or repentant and contrite of heart. A person with a good past may not have a humble heart, and there is always hope for a person with bad past.

Publican or Pharisee

In Luke 18:9-14 is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector). Most of us may tend to identify with the publican, but is that realistic? A publican was a public contractor who supplied Roman occupation armies, oversaw public building projects and collected taxes for the Roman Republic. It was a very profitable position, but at the expense of ones fellow countrymen. A Pharisee was a religious leader who had great popularity among the common people. The Pharisees were noted for their great zeal and devotion. Is it more appropriate for us to relate to the Pharisees? Is it we who attempt to live a good life and do the right thing, who need to guard against an attitude of conceit when comparing ourselves with those from the seamier side of life? Are we not all transgressors?

Judging the judgmental

There is a lot said today about being non-judgmental, but even that is a judgment. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14 are we invited to judge the judgmental religious leader? Is that a contradiction? His smug attitude towards the sinful publican seems to be an object lesson for us. Being completely non-judgmental is impossible. Are there not two kinds of judgment, right and wrong? So as we look at the smug religious leader what kind of attitude do we see within ourselves? Are we smug about not being smug, self-righteous about not being self-righteous, or judgmental about not being judgmental? Does looking at the faults of any fellow human being make us more humble or more arrogant? Religion can make us more arrogant, but it is supposed to help us become more humble.

Self-Justified or God-Justified

We might think that a devout believer is justified by God and a scoundrel cannot be. However, as Luke 18:9-14 reveals, the opposite can be true. A temptation for believers is to compare ourselves to people rather than to God. It is easy to find people who have done wrong. When we compare ourselves with others, we are actually justifying ourselves. With God, no amount of self-justification will work, because we have all failed to measure up to his high standards of perfection. The abject sinner has an advantage. He has exhausted his efforts for self-justification and found out the hard way that it simply does not work. He fails miserably by both human and divine standards and has no delusions about himself. We all have only one hope, confessing our faults and being justified by God not self.

Close to God yet far away

What a contradiction — close to God yet far away! How could this happen? The Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 had possibly spent a lifetime learning about God. He had dedicated his life to the pursuit of holiness. Yet, what had all this produced? He had become confident in his own righteousness. He compared himself to those who had not been so zealous for right living and felt like he was superior. He fasted twice a week, a practice copied by some very dedicated Christians. He tithed on everything, not just the Old Testament requirement to tithe on profits. He was a spiritual super hero, at least in his own mind. Yet he forgot one thing. To God all our good deeds do not clean up a filthy act (Isaiah 64:6). Humility about our filthy state does impress him.

Who Dat

Jesus addresses “some” who are confident in their own righteousness in Luke 18:9-14. Who is that? Is that you or me or someone else? We may assume that because the parable includes a Pharisee that religious leaders are addressed. That certainly is the case, but are they alone? The opening description in the Greek means that they are persuaded about something. That is an attitude of mind, not just an act. These people actually believe that they are just and upright. How can we tell if that applies to us? If we have ever looked down on someone else, or viewed any other human being with contempt, or looked down our noses at anyone, or despised someone, then I guess we must admit that this also applies to us. As they say in New Orleans: Who dat? We dat.

Self-Righteous Delusion

Have we ever thought or prayed, “Thank God I’m not like ...” (and you fill in the blank)? We deceive ourselves that we can assume a measure of superiority over other people. In Luke 18:9-14 it was a religious leader thanking God that he was not like someone else who had come to pray. We can so easily pray, “Thank God I’m not like ...” (fill in a particular religious doctrine or a dubious profession). Such thoughts are a distortion of reality. Just like a crazy person in a mental institution, who believes he is Napoleon, we like to imagine that we are superior to others because of an incomplete comparison. Self-righteousness is a fool’s paradise. If we define our own sense of self-worth by the faults of others, we are living a delusion. We are running from our own faults.

Reformation Self-Righteousness

The Pharisees were reformers of their day and they exhibited a trait which should warn any reformer: self-righteousness (Luke 18:9-14). Every society is always in need of fundamental reform. Whether it is the traditions and disciplines which stand as roadblocks to the Gospel, or the doctrines which are faulty, there is always an underlying need for improvement. There are also large dangers in reformation. Those ahead of the curve can easily believe that they are superior to those behind and vice versa. This easily causes unnecessary division. A self-righteousness inevitably sets in on both sides of a reformation dividing those who see no need to change from those who do. Today’s reformers will become tomorrow’s conservatives as they seek to preserve what they have reformed. The fact is that sin taints both traditionalists and reformers. We are all faulty.

Self-Righteous Thanksgiving

I always feel a little uncomfortable in our wealthy western countries when we thank God that we are not like other nations. Instead of just being thankful for what we have, we seem to want to compare ourselves with others and look down on everyone else. That seems to be expressed often in political and materialistic ways. We have democracy and they do not. We have wealth and they do not. It almost seems like the prayer of the self-righteous Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. Such prayers are one-sided and bigoted. Our wealthy western nations are filled with all kinds of evils not experienced in many poorer nations. We are not living in paradise. We delude ourselves by only painting a partial picture and ignoring anyone who would suggest that we are also lacking. Thanksgiving is good. Self-righteousness is not.

“They are all Hypocrites”

A common excuse for not going to church is that “they are all hypocrites.” It is an allegation with self-righteous overtones. Hypocrisy does not begin and end at the church door. Nor do I believe that hypocrisy is more prevalent within the church than outside. That being said, there are certainly hypocrites in the church. In fact, that is what the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is all about (Luke 18:9-14). On the other hand, if these two individuals are typical of those who attend church, it seems as if there are two kinds of churchgoers. There are those who are self-righteous hypocrites, who use religion as a means to despise others. Yet, there are also those who realize that they are just as much sinners as everyone else and in need of God’s grace and mercy.

“He’s useless!”

A particularly harsh saying in our society is to judge someone else as “useless.” It is a completely dismissive comment that is often directed at politicians, teenagers, sports players or others whom we may hold in disdain. Yet that kind of attitude which we all find within ourselves from time to time is evil. It is just plain wrong. Some people have a very bad habit of directing such comments towards others quite frequently. It is prevalent in some cultures to repeatedly hurl invectives like loser, deadbeat, moron, idiot, scum and so on at others. Even very religious people deceive themselves and fall into this evil (Luke 18:9-14). Despising others occurs when we delude ourselves that there is little or nothing in our own lives to scorn. It reveals a naivete and self-deception about our own sins and faults.

Gimmee Prayers are OK

Christians are sometimes reluctant to ask for personal needs in prayer. We may have heard preachers rail against so-called gimmee (give me) prayers as being selfish and inappropriate. Yet, we must remember that part of the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, is to ask for our daily needs. Many people today are the forgotten and faceless desperate poor who have great and urgent needs. In our hermetically sealed, pristine halls of legislation, some politicians can seem like the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8, ignoring the persistent pleas of the needy. Anciently, widows were without social protection. Today that includes people from many walks of life. Some have lost homes because of medical bills or unemployment. Others have been swindled out of their life’s savings. God will hear and answer our plea for daily needs even when others will not.

Persistent & Demanding Prayer

In the ancient world laws did not divide inheritances equally with a woman. Such was the injustice of the times that this often left a woman who was a widow destitute and poor. In Luke 18:1-8 we read of such a widow’s demands for justice from a recalcitrant judge. Is this how we ought to approach God in prayer, demanding and persistent? If we take the short sentences in the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, as an example of how we ought to approach God, then the answer seems to be a resounding yes. Jesus encouraged us to make demands of God, unabashed, not holding anything back. Perhaps we think that prayer ought to be weak and pedestrian. Yet, that was not the example of the importunate widow. Her plea was persistent and demanding. Are our prayers like that?

Aggressive Faith

Do we have the idea that faith is docile? Do we think that we must simply take abuse without a plea for our rights? Does being a Christian mean that we must passively receive injustice without any response? Do we believe that aggressive cries for equity and fairness are only for those without faith? Should we just wait patiently on God and keep silence? Will the parable of the importunate widow in Luke 18:1-8 give us a different perspective? Is aggressive faith an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Perhaps not. Maybe appropriate, aggressive requests are perfectly acceptable to God. Possibly we don’t have to sit passively by while the world abuses us. Jesus commended a persistent widow for aggressively demanding justice from an uncaring judge. Should we not likewise persistently and aggressively ask God in prayer for his intervention?

Good Persistence

Persistence is not always good. There is an old proverb describing failure as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Sometimes we should give up and try something new. That is the case with a bad habit or a corrupt practice. However, tenacity is the right thing when it comes to something good. Persistence in fighting against corruption and abuse is a necessity. Evil is like a weed. If we give up the fight, it will take over. Abuse in government and industry is commonly reported. It exists in every walk of life, even within the Church, all churches. In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus praised a widow who persistently demanded justice from a judge who did not care. How much more should we persist when we know the only truly just judge ever to exist.

When Justice is Slow

We are all impatient. We pray and expect God to answer without delay. But justice can only be swift if we show less mercy and do not give people space to change their minds. We all want mercy, but we are not always willing to give it. In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus encouraged us to always pray and not give up. When we pray for justice, we must be persistent simply because true justice takes time. Even the adulterous Jezebel who led many people astray in the early church was given time to repent (Revelation 2:20-22). Rush justice steps on people. True justice takes time because it must necessarily involve mercy and space for the guilty to repent. So when we pray, the answer may take some time for God to work out. A key is not to quit.

We are the Unjust Judge

In Luke 18:1-8 we read the parable of the unjust judge and may be tempted to compare God’s justice with that scurrilous person who neither feared God nor cared about men. However, the comparison of God to that individual is not the point. God is the only truly just judge. It is we who are the unjust judges. When we pray ceaselessly against injustice, it is at our own door that justice must first begin. It is we who do not fear God nor care about each other. It is not an unjust world that we fight against primarily, but its poison residing deep within our own souls. Every criticism of injustice that we level against others points a finger right at our own hearts. Pray always and we will be delivered even from our own unjust hearts.

Faith & duty

How much faith does it take to just do our duty towards God? It takes faith to provide for our families today. It takes faith to be a Christian and go against the world and obey Jesus. But all that is just doing our duty to God. How much faith is needed go beyond mere duty? How much faith is needed for really big things? How much faith does it take to build a business to provide for other people’s families? How much faith does it take to build a church that is a light in the community and not just another museum to generations long dead? How much faith does it take to do something really big for God? It is the kind of faith to move trees and mountains. It is faith the size of a mustard seed.

Faith circumstances

Jesus spoke of faith the size of a mustard seed moving tree-sized or mountain-sized challenges. What if you had to build a large barge as huge as a ship? That was Noah’s challenge. He stepped out in faith. Very little detail is given us, but that it took 120 years and was as long as 5 football fields. Too big? Naval architects and structural engineers concluded that the shape was optimal for the stresses involved. What if you were 75 years old and had to move your entire family to another country? Abraham did just that, he stepped out in faith. What if you were past child-bearing age and still wanted a family? Sarah believed that God had promised and was faithful. If it’s God’s will, it may often look like too big a challenge. Take the first step anyway.

Moving obstacles

What obstacle in your life seems too big to move? Is it tree-sized or mountain-sized? It can be conquered in faith the size of a mustard seed. Do you have a spouse who has been unfaithful, and are frozen in place because forgiveness seems too big an obstacle? Start with one small step, a word of faith. Do you have a dream business you want to begin? Are you frozen in place because it seems to big to build? Make a word of faith your first step. Do you have a messy house that just discourages you? Don’t look at the mess, start doing something small and make a word of faith the first step. How do we move a tree or a mountain? One step at a time and the very first step is to speak a positive word.

After prayer, talk & action

In Luke 17:5-10 is a prayer or petition to Jesus. The disciples asked for more faith. Have we ever prayed for faith? If we prayed to Jesus would he give us the same answer? Jesus likened life’s challenges to a mulberry or sycamore tree. Elsewhere, he likened them to a mountain. Then he said something remarkable. He did not say to keep praying, or even fast and study the Bible more. Instead, Jesus said to talk to the tree or mountain, and tell it to move. Is that strange? Is there any more to do? Faith without works is dead, so then after we have told our circumstances to move out of the way we get to work. How do we move a tree or mountain? One shovel full at a time. How do we talk to our challenges?

Enough faith for big things

In Luke 17:5-10 the apostles recognized two things about faith: 1) that faith can grow and 2) that we depend on God for faith. Their request suggested that they did not believe that they had enough faith for the job at hand. However, when Jesus replied to their request the Greek grammar implied they already had the necessary faith, they just needed to use it. As the mulberry or sycamore tree obeys our order to be uprooted and planted in the sea by our faith, so too does a slave obey his master. We cannot earn God’s favor by merely doing what he expects. We must have faith, but asking God for more faith could be dangerous. We might become so Christ-like that we begin to do really big things and even live lives of radical self-sacrifice for others.

Dissatisfied with Faith

Have we ever experienced dissatisfaction with our faith? Have we ever wished that our faith could be increased much larger than it already is? Why do we so often seem to think that bigger is better? Which is more important, quality or quantity? Bigger in size is often less in quality. The apostles seem to have had a similar desire in Luke 17:5-10. The reply is encouraging for those of us who doubt our own faith. Even a small amount can be used in dramatic ways. Our faith may be small in our own eyes, perhaps like a mustard seed. Faith is confidence, loyalty and commitment all in one. Jesus mocks their self doubt or perhaps their attitude of spiritual competitiveness by saying that they, not he, already have enough faith to move a tree. A little is enough.

Psalm 137:9 the most difficult scripture of all

Is Psalm 137:9 which contradicts Christianity really the word of God?

First of all, what is the word of God? Nowhere does the Bible describe itself from Genesis to Revelation as the word of God. It is a phrase that comes from tradition. In one place we read that the word of God came to Abraham in a vision (Genesis 15:1) and then quotes that word. In that narrow sense of the phrase, the words in the Bible before the quote are not the word of God, or word from God and the words in quotes are.

However, the phrase “word of God” is also used in a much broader sense, as the word about God or even the word from God delivered through faulty people. For instance, the word of God spread (Acts 6:7; 12:24) meaning the Gospel message. That does not mean that everything that the Apostles said in their public preaching was infallible. And so after the 400’s AD when the New Testament canon was completed, it was completely appropriate to call the Christian Bible the word of God in that very broad sense.

When we call the Bible the word of God, we are not saying that every sentence is approved as God’s final answer on a topic. The Bible is a book that sometimes records very raw human emotions, which are elsewhere clearly shown to be wrong. What God does allow though is for us to come to him and express exactly how we feel on an issue, no holes barred, completely honestly and openly whether or not those emotions are totally clean and pure in his eyes.

So, why did the writer of the Psalm pray such a horrible prayer? We need to understand that this was a natural, human reaction to similar atrocities that had been perpetrated upon the Jews by surrounding nations. What the Psalm does is give us permission to express to God exactly how we feel, even though later in calmer moments, he will lead us to more righteous thoughts.