They do not practise what they preach

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Matthew 23:1-12

—  The adulterous pastor who campaigns for “family values.”

—  The drug-taking sports star portraying a spotless image to sponsors.

—  The socialist MP who sends her children to exclusive prep-schools.

The world despises leaders who don’t practise what they preach.  And so does Jesus.  In fact Jesus leads the way in the condemnation:

“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:  All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works:  for they say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.”  (Matthew 23:1-7)

These words from Christ would have fallen like asteroids onto the cultural and religious scene of His day.  Jesus is opening fire on the holiest people these Jews had ever seen!  The scribes and Pharisees were the best of the best.  The greatest Bible scholars, the strictest moral leaders.  It was the scribes and Pharisees who chastised the culture from the vantage point of the religious right.  But somehow Jesus outflanks them.  Not so much from the right, but from above.  The assembled crowd would have been astounded.  And the scribes and Pharisees would be choking with righteous indignation.

But in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus delivers the sharpest volley of criticism seen anywhere in the Gospels.  And who is on the receiving end?  The publicans?  The Samaritans?  The Romans?  The sinners?  No.  The religious!

Here is the Prophet par excellence doing what prophets do best:  uncovering the pretensions of religious leaders.  It is public.  It is sharp-tongued.  It is brutal.  And it is unrelenting.

How does Jesus come by such a clear vision of His target?  How is He able to see through the religious window-dressing?  Is it simply because He is the Son of God and therefore “knows what is in a man?”  (John 2:25).  Well there is that.  But if we let Him, Jesus will train us in how to see our leaders.

These verses tell us three things:

1.    Jesus was not fooled by what they say.

In modern translations it says “they do not practice what they preach.”  This is the mark of an authentic teacher – their life is open to scrutiny and free from hypocrisy.  The Pharisees failed the test.

2.    Jesus was not fooled by what they did “to be seen by men.”

The evolutionary psychologists will tell us of a thousand motivations towards “goodness” all of which are ultimately selfish. There is a “goodness” that springs only from pride and it is odious in Christ’s sight.

3.    Jesus recognised their selfishness in giving burdens but refusing to take them.

There is such poetic imagery here: “they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”  They ‘lay down the law’ but never bear one another up!  This is a clear sign that they are not authentic ministers of God’s word.  And Jesus blasts them with a truly righteous indignation.

But what about Jesus Himself?  When He preaches “practice what you preach” does He practice this preaching?

Well let’s consider number 1.  Here is a Preacher who commands “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)  And as He is killed by His enemies, He prays “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

What about number 2?  Think of the Mount of Olives the night before He died.  It was an ancient escape route from Jerusalem in times of trouble (2 Samuel 15).  There is Jesus on top of the mountain, the mob has not yet come to arrest Him and His disciples are asleep.  If ever there was a time to run, this was it.  Yet, when the eyes of all men were shut, Jesus remained and prayed and accepted the cup of suffering from His Father’s hand.

What about number 3?  Christ came not to weigh us down but to lift us up.  He is the true Preacher of God’s Word because ultimately He does not burden His people but carry them.

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s

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Mark 12:13-44

In chess terms they call it a “fork”.  Your opponent puts you in a position where, whatever you do, you will lose a piece.  The Pharisees and Herodians (not a natural alliance) gang up on Jesus “to catch Him in His words.” (Mark 12:13)

“They say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man:  for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth:  Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?  Shall we give, or shall we not give?”   (Mark 12:14-15)

If Jesus says “give”, He loses His Jewish support.  If He says “don’t give”, the Romans will shut Him up before the words leave His lips.

And, 2000 years later, we face a similar quandary.  If Jesus says “give” doesn’t that mean His disciples lose their distinctiveness in the world?  Perhaps we’re just meant to blend into the political landscape and stand for nothing.

Alternatively if He says “don’t give”, we might be consigned to a perpetual contrarian position as regards politics.  Christians would then, by definition, become terrible citizens in the world’s eyes.

So which is it to be?  Well Jesus has already shown His brilliance at escaping such traps.  And here we are treated to another famous riposte:

“But [Jesus], knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it.  And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s.  And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  And they marvelled at him.”  (Mark 12:15-17)

Notice that Jesus has to borrow a coin to make His point.  Here is a Man who had nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20).  He rode into town on a borrowed donkey (Matthew 21:2), He was laid in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:60) and when He died, they gambled for His only possessions, His garments (Matthew 27:35).  When it comes to money, Jesus speaks with complete integrity.  He’s not in love with money, as the Pharisees were (Luke 16:14).  We can trust what He says here because we know it is not motivated by the least degree of self-interest.

And when He gets His hands on a coin, notice what He brings to our attention… the image.  That is the key to this teaching.  We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s image.   The image-bearer belongs to the original.

Do the Pharisees agree to this?  If so they walk into a trap of Jesus’ own making…

We must give to God what is God’s image.  And what is God’s image?  We are!  (Genesis 1:26ff)

Here the tables are turned on Christ’s questioners.  Both the Jews and the Romans are challenged on the most fundamental level.  It’s not about the paying of taxes.  It’s not about the recognition or legitimacy of state power.  It’s about whether we belong to God!

And if we do, then there will always be ways of honouring the temporal authority of the state – even if sometimes it takes a miracle to do so (Matthew 17:24-27).

The Pharisees might have considered civic disobedience to be the height of holy living.  Jesus says, You’ve missed the point.  Do you belong to God?  That is the question.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Out of the mouths of babes

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Psalm 8; Matthew 21:1-17

We might think of today’s phrase as an ancient equivalent of “Kids say the darnedest things.”  But Jesus was making a deeper point.  He wasn’t just pointing us to children.  He was encouraging us to child-like-ness.  It is not only infants, but more generally the simple trusters in Jesus whose surprising wisdom will shock the world.

To understand this teaching we need to know that Jesus splits the world into the “wise” and the “babes.”

“I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”  (Matthew 11:25)

The wise and prudent are self-reliant and self-assured.  They don’t need Jesus and they don’t want Him.  The “babes” are dependent and happy to be so.  They know their desperate need and are not ashamed to receive from the Lord of life.

An eight year old could play the part of the wise and prudent.  And an eighty year old could be one of the “babes.”  It’s not about age but about guileless dependence.

How does Jesus react to these two groups?

Well previously we saw Jesus “cleansing the temple.”  The religious had turned His house of prayer into a den of thieves.  He violently opposes their religious posturing, overturning the tables.

You might think that such aggression would frighten the little ones.  We could imagine that the timid and weak would be disturbed and stay at a distance.  In fact, the opposite is true.  When they see Him overturn the tables of the strong, the weak are magnetically drawn to Him:

“And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.  And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased, And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?”  (Matthew 21:14-16)

The blind, the lame and the children are not put off by Christ’s strength because they see it employed in their liberation.  The very weakest members of society flock to this holy Rioter, perhaps still holding His whip!

What kind of personality can walk into the holiest place on earth, throw around the furniture and so attract the wrath of the authorities and the love of the little ones?  In this world, there are some who can face down the powers that be.  And there are some who can win the trust and affection of the weak and timid.  But Jesus does both.  He stands between the “wise” and the “babes”, giving both exactly what they need. In the process He polarizes them even further!

And then He quotes Scripture.  He’s not some outlaw with the support of a rebellious fringe.  He is the ultimate Law Abiding Citizen (Galatians 4:4).  He doesn’t stand on one side against the other – He comes from above with the wisdom of heaven.  And so He gives them the biblical explanation for it all:

“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.”  (Psalm 8:2)

The children had been applying the Messianic title: “Son of David” to Jesus.  The authorities want Him to disown it.  But Jesus says, No, remember the Psalm, you need to listen to the “babes.”

In the world of Psalm 8, Jesus is the Son of Man/Son of David, the little children are the “babes” and the chief priests and scribes… who are the?  They are the “enemies”!  Yet, here’s a wonderful thought.  How is the battle between the “Son of David” and His enemies to be adjudicated?  By the little children.

What “stills” the enemy?  Not just a bigger whip.  What stills the enemy is the praise of the little ones.  You see the Son of David is not vindicated by the size of His army, but by the simple-hearted praise of the “babes.”

I speak to many Christians who worry about their feebleness in witness. They lament that they don’t give impressive proofs to their friends and family regarding Jesus.  But Jesus is not the kind of Lord who is vindicated by worldly strength.  He is vindicated by the blind, the lame and the infants.  The words that best point to Christ are the words “out of the mouths of babes.”  Because “wisdom is justified by her children.” (Matthew 11:19)

Den of thieves

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Matthew 21:12-17

Perhaps this question seems to belong to another age, but it’s very worth asking:

Where can sinners take shelter from the wrath of God?

It might sound old fashioned and out of touch with today’s world.  But if so, perhaps it’s we who are out of touch with reality.  The word of God rouses us from our slumber.  Revelation 6 gives us a sobering picture of the final day.  Here is the reality we must all deal with:

“And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:  For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17)

Humanity is described in a seven-fold way, from kings to bondmen, everyone is included.  All seek a hiding place.  None can stand the onslaught of this wrath.

Therefore the question is far from antiquated.  It’s the issue for today, because it concerns our future eternity.  What “den” is there to shelter us from the coming wrath?

In the Bible, there is a very prominent wrong answer to that question.  The wrong answer is “religion.”

Take Jeremiah for instance.  The prophet declares the imminent judgement of Jerusalem, and nothing the people can do will avert it. Nonetheless, there are some who seek refuge in the temple and its trappings. But the LORD will disabuse them of any false security:

“Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD… Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?  Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”  (Jeremiah 7:4,9-11)

Where are these sinners seeking shelter?  In the house called by the name of the LORD.  This is what it means to turn the temple into a “den of robbers.”  They have turned religion into their hiding place.  And there they proclaim “We are delivered to do all these abominations.”

Who can deny that religious people use their religion as a cover for evil? Blaise Pascal has said:

“Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”

The LORD does not deny this for a second.  He exposes it.  And He exposes them – tearing down their den as the Babylonians sack Jerusalem.

Six hundred years later the LORD visits the re-built temple.  And He gives it the same treatment.

More than once I’ve had atheists raise Christ’s “cleansing of the temple” in Matthew 21 as a reason not to follow Jesus.  This is highly ironic since those same atheists have told me how religion is such a great source of evil.  Jesus would agree.  That is precisely why He overthrows the tables, etc!

Few secularists come anywhere close to the anti-religious fervour of Jesus of Nazareth.  This temple cleansing should be a favourite passage for the new atheists.

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.”  (Matthew 21:12-13)

Just as it was in Jeremiah 7, the temple is, yet again, scheduled for demolition.  In the parable of the wedding banquet Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and now in the following chapter He visits the temple one last time.

Notice what Jesus calls the temple: “a house of prayer.”  It is no nuclear bunker, able to protect “thieves” like us from the coming judgement.  It is a place of prayer.  It is not itself a spiritual safe-house but a pointer to the One who is.

In just 5 days, the LORD Jesus would be torn down on the cross – demolished, shattered under the wrath which belongs to us.  And yet on the Sunday He would be raised up again – the true House of God and the only refuge for we sinners.

Therefore the lesson is clear: there is no shelter in religion.  There are no societies we can join, no rituals we can practice, no mysteries we can fathom, no deeds we can perform that will shield us from “Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.”  If even the Jerusalem temple – the house called by the LORD’s own name – proved a vain refuge, there is certainly no hope in any other religious edifice.  These would-be hiding places are simply “dens of thieves.”  And they are so dangerous since they make us to run in exactly the wrong direction.

The only refuge is the Lamb Himself.  The only fleeing to be done is towards Him.  For Christ alone is our refuge.  All else is sinking sand.

Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass

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Zechariah 9:9-13; Matthew 21:1-11

In the Old Testament book of Zechariah there are two commands to rejoice.  Once it says:

“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion:  for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD.  And many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto thee.”  (Zechariah 2:10-12)

Very clearly we see two Persons called the LORD here.  The Speaker who says “lo, I come” is called the LORD.  And this LORD is also sent by the LORD of hosts.

He is LORD from LORD.  Light from Light.  Very God from Very God, as the creed would put it.  Here is the LORD Christ speaking of how He would dwell in the midst of His people and join them to His Father, the LORD of Hosts.

In Zechariah 9 we get the second command to rejoice – and again it is about the coming of Christ to His people:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”  (Zechariah 9:9)

Here is the kind of LORD He is:  Christ is the lowly King.  Can you fathom this?  The King who is LORD, the Sent One from the Most High, the Christ, the Son of God – He is lowly.  He rides not in a chariot, not on a stallion, not on a white charger, but on an ass.

Rejoice greatly O people of God!  Here is the humble-hearted LORD Almighty.

They didn’t know it, but the people of Zechariah’s day would have to wait 500 years for this coming.  But when it happened on that Psalm Sunday, it unfolded exactly as written.  The LORD Jesus makes His travel arrangements and Matthew comments:

“All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet [Zechariah], saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.  And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.  And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.  And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David:  Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.”  (Matthew 21:4-9)

This coming to Jerusalem is often called “The Triumphal Entry”.  To call it such makes the comparison with the Roman Triumph ceremonies where conquering commanders and kings returned from battle to receive glory and honour.

Christ’s “triumphal entry” is different.  For a start, His choice of transport is a deliberate subversion of kingly expectation.  He does ride into town. He is a king.  But He’s not that kind of king.

He is the lowly King.  And He doesn’t come returning from battle – He’s heading for His death.  In five days He would be strung up on a Roman cross.  And the crowd that sings Hosanna will soon cry “Crucify Him!”

No-one has captured the irony better than Samuel Crossman in My Song is Love Unknown.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

Jesus knows that this is their destiny.  And His.  Yet He rides on.

And perhaps the deepest irony comes when we consider their benediction: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”  The saying is from Psalm 118.  As we turn to the original context, notice where the blessed recipient of these hosannas ends up…

“Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD:  we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD. 27 God is the LORD, which hath shewed us light:  bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.”  (Psalm 118:26-27)

The Blessed One is the Coming One.  He comes in the name of the LORD.  But where does He come to?

There is a welcoming committee who greet Him “out of the house of the LORD” – that is, the temple.  And when they eventually get hold of Him, what do they say?  “Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.”

This Coming LORD is the Blessed One, but as He’s received by the people He becomes a Human Sacrifice!  The King is bound upon the altar.

What kind of triumphal entry is this?  It is a procession which leads not to a stage, not to a throne, but to a cross.  This is the meekness of our LORD and King, whose glory is His sacrifice.  This is truly love unknown.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

Many are called but few are chosen

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Matthew 22:1-14

…So the handsome prince married his beautiful bride and they all lived happily ever after.  Do you believe in fairytales?  I say “fairytales” – it’s a bit deeper than that.  It runs in our cultural bloodstream. It courses through our literature, our music, our films, our deepest values in life.  We have this belief that when the guy and the girl get together – that is it.  That is the ultimate.  The happiest of happy endings.

Jesus tells us why we have that sense.  He says:

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son…” (Matthew 22:2)

In this parable, God is the King, Jesus is His Son.  And the kingdom of heaven is a wedding feast.  It is a joyful celebration thrown by the Father for His Son.  Here is the meaning of life according to the Bible:  The Father loves His Son Jesus and invites the world to enjoy Jesus Christ with Him.

Last year we saw another royal wedding.  William and Kate invited 40 kings and queens, 50 members of the royal family, 60 governors general and Commonwealth prime-ministers, 200 members of the government, Parliament and diplomatic corps.  But also they invited Kate Middleton’s grocer, butcher and postman, her pub landlord and 300 other friends of the couple.

Gentlemen were required to wear uniform, morning coat or lounge suit. Ladies were required to wear a hat for the wedding service.  Some of them perhaps went overboard.

In Biblical times, life was even simpler for the recipients of invitations. Servants would come and take your RSVP personally.  And if you wanted to go, the right clothes were provided on the day by the host.  Therefore there really was no excuse for not showing up and not being dressed for the occasion.

But the shock of Christ’s parable is how people respond to the King’s invitation.

“And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come.  Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner:  my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage.  But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise:  And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them.”  (Matthew 22:3-6)

First the servants are met by indifference, then mockery, then violence. Earlier this year, republican sentiment was stirred up by the royal wedding.  Many took it as an opportunity to voice their anti-royalist grievances.  But you have to hate the King and His Son very much to kill the inviters, don’t you?  This is high treason.

And yet Jesus is simply retelling the Old Testament story here.  Prophet after prophet invite the people, and prophet after prophet are met with hatred and violence.  Eventually the King responds:

“But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth:  and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.”  (Matthew 22:7)

Here is a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in AD70.  Those who refused the invitation of the King would be those who themselves kill the Son.  Jesus says judgement will fall.  And we look back to see that judgement did fall, just as He predicted.  But this is not the end of the story.

“Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy.  Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage.  So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good:  and the wedding was furnished with guests.”  (Matthew 22:8-10)

The kingdom of heaven is for everyone.  Bad and good.  Diplomats and butchers, princes and prostitutes, celebrities and criminals.  The Father will celebrate His Son and will celebrate with everyone who wants to join in.  It will be an eternity of feasting and joy.  It will be the happily ever after we all long for.

But this parable doesn’t end with that “happily ever after.”  Jesus brings everything back to earth with a bump to discuss the case of a single invitee who misses out.

“And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:  And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.  Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:11-14)

One man was not wearing the appropriate clothes.  He has refused to put on what’s been provided.  He’s refused to acknowledge the occasion.  It is a snub to the Father and the Son and he is cast out of the feast.

Heaven is a party.  But it’s not any old party.  It’s God the Father’s celebration of His Son.  The many who are called are not called to a place of abstract blessings and general pleasures.  The chosen are those who don’t merely celebrate the supper – they celebrate the Son. The very essence of the kingdom is a love and honour for Jesus.  If we don’t want to acknowledge Jesus, then we may be called, but we are not chosen.

But then why would we not acknowledge Jesus?  Especially when we understand the lengths He has gone to, to invite us.  In the story he sends servants.  But in the Gospels He came in Person.  He is God’s personal invitation to the feast.  And everything He does beckons us in.  On the cross He voluntarily took our judgement for heavenly high treason.  The Great Bridegroom got bound hand and foot and dragged outside the city.  The Royal Son of the Father was cast into outer darkness with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Jesus suffered hell to bring us heaven.  He was cast out so that we could be brought in.

Being “chosen” is not about looking within to find qualifications for the feast.  We find ourselves chosen when we look away to Christ and our hearts are won by the Heavenly Bridegroom.

All things are ready:  come unto the marriage!

The last shall be first and the first last

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Matthew 20:1-16

Have you ever discovered a co-worker’s salary?  How did it affect you?  It can be deeply destabilising.

There are good reasons that offices issue their payslips in sealed envelopes.  Knowing the wages of fellow labourers can inspire volatile jealousy and tear a workplace apart.  But why should it?

Well, human beings are incurable rankers.  We constantly assess ourselves against others.

There is within us a deep-seated feeling that “I am not ok”.  And we seek to drown out its intolerable voice by shouting “But I’m not as bad as him! And I certainly deserve more than her!”  To use the technical term, we are committed to an intensive and almost unceasing programme of self-justification.

Nervously, we eye the front of the queue and, whether through hard work or just self-deception, we put ourselves forward.  Maybe not to the head of the queue.  But pretty far along.  Further than most!

And while we jostle for the front, the Judge of the World arrives to announce: “The front is the back and the back is the front!”

It’s a sword-thrust through the heart of self-justification.

And how do those at the front feel?

Read Matthew 20:1-16

Into whose shoes do you naturally put yourself in this story?

Most church folk  see themselves in the hardest working labourers.  And their cries of “Unfair!” resonate with us, even if we might never be so bold as to voice such a “murmur.”

Rarely do religious types think of themselves as those standing idle because “no man hath hired” them.  Yet, if we are Gentiles, that is our story.  We have been passed over for generations while God established His vine, Israel.  We have been invited in at the last minute and lavished with the blessings of Abraham.

So really it doubly reveals my self-justification.  I’ve actually worked some of the shortest hours and I’m tempted to feel cheated!  How deep our sense of entitlement runs!

But here is the rock on which our self-justification is dashed:  the goodness of Jesus.  This is a stunning truth.  Any who grumble against the judgement of Jesus will find themselves grumbling against His generosity.

“Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way:  I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:13-15)

The penny was a perfectly reasonable day’s wage.  If these grumblers had never known about their neighbours’ pay they wouldn’t even think to murmur.  But they don’t just want pay, they want more pay than others. And Jesus puts His finger on their problem – their “evil eye.”  This just means their jealousy.  They want to be rewarded and vindicated as better than others.  But the Lord refuses to play along.  He wants to be generous.  And so He makes a show of His equal pay to all.

He doesn’t quietly lavish the undeserving with grace, He publicly does it. He is declaring to all that generosity is the very atmosphere of His kingdom.  Therefore self-justification is out.

There can be no murmuring, no entitlement spirit, no ranking in Christ’s Kingdom.  While we jostle for the head of the queue, Jesus shows up at the back – the lowest of the low.  He serves and suffers and bleeds and dies the most shameful death.  And He – the Servant – is vindicated as Lord.  The Last became First.  He made the back of the queue into the front.

Meantime, all those clambering to the “front” find that it leads only to further jealousy, back-biting and gnashing of teeth.

The implication is clear.  Give up the self-justification.  Give up the comparisons and the competition.  Don’t despise the generosity of Jesus. Depend on it.

A millstone around your neck

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Matthew 18:1-9

A heavy burden weighing you down.  Inescapable.  And probably self-inflicted.  That’s how we think of a millstone around our necks.  A job, a relationship, an ongoing commitment – these things can often be called “millstones around our neck.”

But when Jesus said it, He wasn’t referring to a wearisome inconvenience. He was speaking of a deadly punishment:

“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.  But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”   (Matthew 18:1-6)

It’s not simply that this millstone weighs you down as you trudge along the road.  It’s much worse than that.  This millstone sends you plummeting to the ocean floor.  This is about being swallowed up in the abyss, never to rise.

In fact, Jesus says that such a death would be preferable to the fate He’s talking about.  Drowning is better than what awaits “whoso shall offend one of these little ones.”

How can Jesus paint such a violent picture?  It all flows from His protective love for these “little children.”

He begins by teaching us to be little children.

Matthew Henry comments on this:

“Children, when very young, do not desire authority, do not regard outward distinctions, are free from malice, are teachable, and willingly dependent on their parents.”

Unlike the disciples in this scene, the little children are not grasping at glory.  They are simple, humble, dependent, happy with their lowly position in the group.  They are content simply to be with Jesus.

This is the essence of the Christian life.  But then Jesus adds a second quality in verse 5.  He wants childlike Christians to receive the humble and lowly also.  The person who is received by Jesus (v4), is to be the person who receives like Jesus (v5).

Here we see how much Jesus values child-like faith.  The essence of the kingdom is being received by Jesus as a child-like truster.  In turn we become receivers of other child-like trusters.  The kingdom which Jesus is describing is so different to the power-grabbing philosophy of the disciples.  And Jesus will oppose their theology of glory with all His might.  He is determined to paint the kingdom as a kindergarten of kindness.  Status seeking is completely excluded.  And verse 6 will declare it in the strongest terms:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  (Matthew 18:6)

If the disciples were offended by being told of their need for “conversion” in v3, how will they feel after verse 6?

I don’t think we’re meant to imagine Jesus looking past the disciples to some shadowy figures in the crowd.  This is not a verse about stranger danger.  It’s a verse about self-assured glory-seekers – just like the disciples have been in verse 1!  It is behaviour just like the disciples’ that will “offend” (that is, it will make little children stumble).  The most dangerous thing for child-like trusters is a culture of leaders who are constantly asking and assessing “Who is the greatest?”

It’s the affectation of grown-up glory-hunting that causes “little ones” to stumble.  This grasping for greatness shepherds them away from the very essence of the Christian life – resting in Jesus like a child in His arms.

So Jesus says “Don’t even think about it!  You’d be better off drowning yourself than harming my children.”  It’s very strong teaching.

Are we child-like?  Dependent?  Have we resolved to abandon the power-plays and status-seeking?  Or do we despise the little ones (v10)?  Do we look down on them, desiring to raise ourselves up?  Are we essentially asking each other “Who is the greatest?”

If we are, we’re already swallowed up in Gentile thinking (the sea and the nations go together in the Bible).  If we raise ourselves up we’ll be cast down.  Instead, to be a great one let’s become a little one.

Jesus wept

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John 11:1-46

How do you handle death?

Broadly speaking, people either deny it or they befriend it.

Denial is the majority option.  “Life is for the living” we say and we put death out of our minds.  As best we can.  But it will come out in other ways.  Hebrews 2 says we are “subject to bondage” “through fear of death.”  All our fears are ultimately a fear of this final enemy.  However we deny it, it will surface in a slavery to fear.

The other popular response is to befriend death.  “It’s the circle of life” we sing along with the Lion King.  We tell ourselves it’s a good thing that our loved ones are compost.  It makes the flowers grow, or something.  Somehow we pretend that death is not the dreaded foe that Scripture declares and which most of us feel it to be.

Jesus does something different in the face of death.  He enters in and He defeats it.  He cares and He conquers.  He stands with us in our sorrow, and He defeats our sorrow.  And we need both caring and conquering.

We don’t just want a shoulder to cry on, and we don’t just want a King who breezes in to control the situation. We need a caring conqueror.  And that is just what Jesus is.  The comfort He provides is exactly what our hearts cry out for.  He mourns with us.  But He doesn’t just rub our backs and say “there there.” He doesn’t just carry our sorrows – He conquers them.

In John chapter 11, Jesus comes to the funeral of his dear friend Lazarus.  And He enters into the fullness of grief:

“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, And said, Where have ye laid him?  They said unto him, Lord, come and see.  Jesus wept.  Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!”  (John 11:33-36)

The family are mourning, the friends are mourning and the Lord of the universe is mourning.  Jesus wept.  God the Son cries.  He cries many times in His life (cf Hebrews 5:7).  He enters into our world and He feels for it.  There is much for Him to cry over, and He shows Himself to be far more profoundly emotional than we are.  We shut down and close off.  Jesus enters in and opens up.  He loves and He longs.  He rejoices and He mourns.  And when He sees the immense grief that death has brought into this world; when He sees the depth of sorrow in a family torn apart by death – of course He cries.

John 11 verse 5 tells us He loves Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary.  And those present couldn’t help but notice it.  Verse 36, they exclaim: “Behold how He loved him!”

Here is the One who now sits on the throne of heaven.  And, behold, how He loves!  This same Jesus who cared for Martha and Mary, He knows how to cry along with each of us.

But, wonderfully, Jesus isn’t just sad about death.  He is the One Person who can do something about it.  Jesus doesn’t just care, He conquers.

In verse 43 Jesus stands at the tomb and calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”

“And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes:  and his face was bound about with a napkin.  Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.”  (John 11:44)

A decomposing corpse obeys Jesus’ voice, is raised to life and he walks out of the tomb.

Put yourself in the shoes of those present at the tomb.  They had come to pay their respects to a friend and his family.  They had come to do the only thing we know to do in the face of death – they had come to mourn.  But instead they get front row seats to the most spectacular victory over the most tyrannical enemy.  In front of their eyes, Jesus commands a corpse to live again.

In the history of the human race a handful of people have been brought back to life after a matter of minutes – and with the help of advanced technology.  Some have survived longer frozen in the ice.  But Lazarus had been rotting in the Mediterranean heat for four days.  And the voice of Jesus called him to life.  Lazarus steps out into the sunshine with resurrection power surging through his body.  As you put yourself in the shoes of the crowd, can you see Lazarus?  Can you see Jesus?  What are you thinking about Jesus – this loving, tear-stained man?  He commands the dead to be raised, and they obey!  Who is He?

Well this miraculous sign points to His identity.  He has just said to Martha:

“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”  (John 11:25-26)

Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the key that unlocks the grave.  He is the death of death.  All who trust in Jesus, even if they go to their graves, they will be raised again to everlasting life.

Jesus proclaims Himself to be the Answer to the problem of the world.  The claim would be ridiculous, if it weren’t backed up by the miracle.  Yet He makes the claim and then He raises the dead.  And in a matter of weeks He walks out of His own tomb, and the world has never been the same.

How do you cope with death?  Do you deny it?  Do you befriend it?  There is another way.  We can face it as the enemy it is, knowing the care of the weeping Jesus and the conquering of the risen Jesus.

The old poet and Anglican clergyman, George Herbert, once wrote of death:

And in his blessing thou art blest
For where thou only wort before
An executioner at best,
Thou art a gardener now; and more,

Death will always bury us.  It used to bury us as a grave-digger.  But now through Christ, the burial is like the planting of a gardener.  With Jesus, death can only make us better.


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Matthew 19:27-30

The new birth is absolutely critical.  That was Jesus’ teaching in John 3 – “Ye must be born again!

But often, when we think of the new birth, we imagine that it is only individuals who need regeneration.  But in Matthew 19, Jesus had something much bigger in mind:

“Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?  And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.  But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”  (Matthew 19:27-30)

“Regeneration” translates a Greek word that might be more literally rendered “birth-again”.  There is a new birth that is not simply for people – it is for creation itself.  Not an endless cycle of death and rebirth.  A single and definitive rebirth – the regeneration.

Just as Christ was crucified once and rose never to die again, so this world will pass through the judgement and out into a once-and-for-all regeneration.  Heaven and earth will be reborn when “the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory.”

Jesus will stand again on the earth, the Last Adam and true Ruler of the Cosmos.  On that day the world will be set to rights.  Through the disobedience of “Man” creation fell.  Through the obedient Man reigning on the “throne of His glory”, creation will be reborn.

And it’s the kind of rebirth that will turn the world right-side up.  Scores will be settled.  The proud will be cast down and the humble exalted.  All who have “forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands” for Christ’s sake will receive back a hundredfold.  A 10,000% return on investment!

Christ’s teaching here answers the short-term folly of the rich young ruler. Perhaps we can imagine him still within earshot as Jesus says these words. Christ’s teaching on “the regeneration” shows the rich young ruler’s decision to be complete madness.

Because, in a significant sense, the problem with the rich man was that he wasn’t interested in riches enough. He could have had a hundredfold back with Jesus!  He wasn’t interested in ruling enough – he could have sat on thrones with Christ!  And he wasn’t “young” enough – he could have found eternal youth in Christ’s cosmic regeneration!

Whatever self-denial Jesus called the man too, it was only temporary. Jesus was offering him a fullness beyond his wildest dreams.

That’s so important to understand.  Jesus does not get us to trade “worldly pleasures” for private, spiritual experiences.  We might get that impression if we only understood “regeneration” individually.  But no, Jesus does not simply offer a private new-birth – a little, localised fresh start.  Only the very pious can trade this world for a personal religious experience!

No, no.  Jesus is unashamedly offering us the world.  And not just this world – this world, reborn.  It’s in the context of this cosmic regeneration that following Jesus makes sense.  If this world will be reborn with Christ at the centre, then, ultimately, there’s no such thing as sacrifice for Jesus. Only investment!