Sunday, December 30, 2012

Did Jesus Beat Up the Rich?

It must be admitted, as we saw in the last post, Jesus was a little tough on the rich.  And it did seem to be a little sweeping.  Why did Jesus and James seem to be so hard on this particular social class?  I mean, did they do something so wrong?  And to thoroughly condemn them seems to be a bit excessive. 

            There is a definitive reason for this that can be described in four points:

1. God commands the wealthy to use their wealth for the poor
This is a consistent ethic throughout the Scripture, as we have seen above.  There are three main sections of Hebrew Scripture: The Law, The Prophets and the Writings.  The Law commands loans and alms to be given to the poor.63  The Prophets command the poor to be assisted or God would not bless them.64  The Writings speak of the dangers that happen to the wealthy if they do not give to the poor. 65  This is not a minor theme, nor is it easily ignored.  This does not mean that the majority of Bible teachers do not have on their blinders, looking only at their theological focus, but it is clearly at the heart of loving one’s neighbor in the OT.

2. Jesus is prophetically commanding an ethic of love
Jesus is not so much establishing a new law, as he is interpreting the Mosaic Law through the rose-colored lens of acting for the benefit of everyone.66  And Jesus’ ethic is not based in the realm of emotions, but in bold action.  Part of this action, an aspect that Jesus repeats a few times, is the need of the wealthy to give of what they have to the poor.  Jesus isn’t erasing the old Law and simply writing his own over the stone tablets—he is simply re-commanding what is already a part of God’s ethic.  This is so much so that Abraham, in one of Jesus’ parables, stated that the wealthy giving to the poor was so clearly commanded in “Moses and the Prophets:” that it should be obvious to everyone.67

3. The wealthy only occasionally give to the poor
The command of God was not being obeyed by the wealthy.  Surely, some wealthy gave the occasional alms, and a few would assist their poor relatives.  But the heart of the command was being ignored.  Beggars lined the street, and many poor languished and suffered for their poverty.  All the while, the wealthy not only ignored them, but they condemned them.  “They must be judged by God.”  “Repent and get right with God and you will have what you need!”  Instead of the poor being assisted by the wealthy, they were ostracized by them.

4. The wealthy are judged by God
Jesus makes it clear that there are wealthy who are righteous, a part of God’s people.  But these are the wealthy who surrender their wealth, not keeping it for themselves.68  The wealthy are to remember that their wealth is not their own, but loaned to them by their Banker, God.  When God gave them the loan, He said, “You are to give any excess you have to the poor and needy—do not keep it for yourself.”  But the wealthy ignored their Banker and used the money for themselves.  The Banker kept an eye on the accounts, until finally an accounting day came—and the Banker took back everything he had given, and more.  The wealthy are not God’s favorites.  They have been blessed by God, but that blessing comes with a condition—use the blessing for the benefit of those who most need it. 69

Jesus was not interested in "beating up" the wealthy.  Rather, he was calling them to repent of keeping their wealth for their own power, but instead to give it to those who need it the most.  He is not saying this because he dislikes wealthy people, but because he loves them and he wants to see them have all the blessings of God.  When Jesus said that he came to "seek and save the lost" it was in the context of him convincing a wealthy man to surrender his wealth to the poor. 70

Wealth (just like fame and power) is not actually a blessing for Christians, but in reality a test.  It is a test to see if one would use the wealth as God sees fit, or would use it as the world sees fit—to increase one’s power, comfort or wealth, or to surrender it to those who need it most.  C.S. Lewis passed the test (he gave the majority of his wealth to charity, choosing to live on a limited income).  Rick Warrens passed the test (he gives more than 90% of his wealth to charity, going to the poorest in the world).  Mother Theresa famously passed the test, surrendering her life for the poor.

            I mention these exceptions, although they are rare.  The far majority of Christians who face this hardest of all tests fail miserably.  They make excuses why they should use their wealth for themselves.  They make excuses not to give to the poor.  In this way, the wealthy have become disfavored and rejected by God.  And so Jesus and James and others in the New Testament have harsh words to say to them.  Because their wealth they spend on themselves is not a sign of God’s blessing, but rather of their disobedience and arrogance.  Of their failure.

63. e.g. Deuteronomy 15:4-11

64. e.g. Jeremiah 5:28-29

65. e.g. Psalm 41:1-3; Proverbs 21:13

66. This is the point of the “You have heard it said” section of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  Each law or interpretation of the law is re-interpreted by the command “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Then Jesus wraps up by saying that only the leaders who obey the love command are to be listened to, the rest are false prophets (Matthew 7:12-23).

67. Luke 16:19-31, esp. v. 29

68. Mark 10:21-25; Luke 19:1-10.  It is interesting that Job and Abraham are often given as examples of people who were wealthy but named righteous before God.  It is clear in Scripture that part of the reason they were righteous is because they generously gave to the poor and immigrants. Genesis 18:2-8; Job 29:11-16.

69. Luke 16 is the primary focus for this understanding.  In the parable of the unrighteous steward, Jesus interprets as a person using money that was not his own to make friends of the poor so he would be helped when he was poorer than they.  Jesus also in that chapter, uses the example of the rich man who didn’t help Lazarus, a destitute beggar at the rich man’s gates, and so was brutally punished in the afterlife.

70. Luke 19:1-10

Jesus and the Rich

Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem.  He was going there to proclaim his authority over the city, but also to be killed by the leaders.  Nevertheless, he made it clear that he was heading toward Jerusalem.  Some of the Samaritans, who thought the temple in Jerusalem was not of God, was angry at Jesus because of his focus on the city, but Jesus ignored them.  Every step drew him closer to the cross, and he called everyone who followed him to take up a cross for themselves.

As Jesus was walking to Jerusalem, a young man stopped him and asked a question, “Good Teacher, what do I have to do to gain eternal life—to enter God’s kingdom?”  It seemed at first that the man was just trying to test Jesus so Jesus said, “Don’t flatter me.  Only God is ‘good.’  And as far as your question goes, everyone knows how to have eternal life, you don’t need to ask me about that.  Follow the commands from God—Don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother—you know all that.”

            The young man replied, “Yes, I know all that.  I have been keeping these commands all of my life.  Are you telling me that there isn’t anything more?”  Jesus then saw that the man was sincere and he desired to help him in any way he could, “If you want to be sure of God’s kingdom, then do this—sell off everything you have, then take that money and give it all to the poor.  At that point, your reward in heaven is guaranteed.  Once you’ve done that, follow me.  I am going to the cross, and anyone who would come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  Come.” 

            However, the young man walked away in mourning because he had many possessions and to get rid of them all was very difficult.  He didn’t know he could do it.  Watching the man, Jesus mentioned to his disciples, “It is very hard for a rich man to enter into God’s kingdom.”  The disciples were surprised at this, so Jesus said, “Are you surprised?  It is so hard for a rich man to enter into God’s kingdom, that it would be easier for me to take a camel and put it through a needle’s eye than to get a rich man into God’s kingdom.”  The disciples were shocked and said, “Then can no one be saved?  Can no one enter into God’s kingdom?”  Jesus nodded and said, “It is just about impossible.  But the things that are impossible for people are more than possible if God is with you.” 

Peter's boat, still at the Sea of Galilee
            Peter, though, thought about what Jesus said to the wealthy man and asked, “Lord?  You told that man to sell his possessions and give to the poor.  But we didn’t sell our possessions.  We left them, yes, but they are still sitting there waiting for us.  And I had no intention of selling them.  Will we gain God’s kingdom?”

            Jesus replied, “Don’t worry, Peter.  Anyone who gives up what they have for me and for the gospel—whether it be their family, their homes, their land or their job—will gain more, much more.  Those who surrender all for me will gain more family, more homes, more land and more work—and more persecutions.  And in the end, they will gain eternal life.”

            A little while later, Jesus was travelling through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem.  As he was passing through, a huge crowd surrounded him, blocking the streets.  There was a very wealthy man in Jericho named Zaccheus.  He was a chief tax collector of the Romans, and that and his wealth indicated that he had cheated money out of his fellow Jews.  Because of this, he was ostracized by all of his people, they wouldn’t even go to his house or greet him. 

            Zaccheus, however, greatly desired to be right with God.  And he figured that Jesus was one of the last chances he had to repent and make peace with God.  So Zaccheus tried to get through the crowd to meet Jesus.  But he was so short, no one even noticed he was trying to get through.  Frustrated, Zaccheus decided that even if he had to look foolish, he would meet Jesus.  So Zaccheus went ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree, and then waited for Jesus to pass it. 

            As the crowd passed, they laughed at him, but Zaccheus didn’t care.  One of those from Jericho whispered to Jesus, “This is Zaccheus, the chief tax collector of Jericho.”  That was all Jesus needed to know.  He said, “Come down Zaccheus.  I need to stay at your house today.”  Zaccheus thought that was great—he was finally having the change to make his life right with God.  But some others didn’t think it was great.  They said, “Doesn’t he know what a terrible sinner this man is?  Why is he even talking to him?”

            Zaccheus heard the accusation and said, “I say that beginning today I will give half of what I make to the poor.  And on top of that, I will do just as Moses’ law commands and give back four times as much to anyone whom I have stolen from.”  Jesus was impressed and said, “You see—today Zaccheus has come back from sin and is once again a child of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost.”

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cheap Grace v. Costly Grace

The following is from Deitrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.... 

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian 'conception' of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.... In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. 'All for sin could not atone.' Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin....

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus Doesn't Believe in Cheap Grace

It's easy to say that salvation is free. It's easy to go to seeker services and feel good, pumped up spiritually for another week.  It's easy to hear what we want to hear.  It's easy to separate what Jesus actually said and did from our lives and claim a superficial Christianity.

But Jesus didn't allow for any of that.  He isn't interested in being people's savior without being their Lord.  He'll only accept people as His when they are willing to make the greatest sacrifices.

  • Jesus said we have to "hate" our family and friends.
  • Jesus said we have to surrender our possessions.
  • Jesus said we have to give up on selfish ambition.
  • Jesus said we have to stop looking for ways to promote ourselves.
  • Jesus said we need to sacrifice ourselves for others.
  • Jesus said we need to accept homelessness, rejection, persecution and death.
  • And Jesus said that if we ignore any of these, then we cannot be his disciple.  We cannot truthfully call him Lord.

Jesus requires these difficult requirements because in this world it is easy to get distracted by the things that will cause the world to implode.  To love wealth is to destroy others.  To have the destruction of innocent people as a tool is your belt is evil.  To see other people as less than human undermines the world.  To be so loyal to family or friends to stand with them as they do wrong is to do wrong. To get ahead by any means possible is the destruction of the weak.  To  be with Jesus is to be against all of these.

Following Jesus isn't pretty.  It requires tough minds, tough wills and tough decisions.

Why does the Protestant church insist upon free grace?  Because it is available to anyone, no matter what they've done in the past.  It's available to anyone, no matter who they are or how much money or time they have.

However, once we have committed to Jesus as Lord, we need to see how we can best follow him by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We can't make a firm step in any of these areas without the Spirit.  But with God's power, we can do all this and more.

The Cost of Discipleship

Because Jesus was going to be killed as a revolutionary, he recognized that being a follower of his is no easy task.  They would be attacked, arrested and even killed for following him.  And not only that, but Jesus wanted everyone to recognize that if they were going to be given honor from God on the judgement day, they needed to be servants and the lowest of all in this world.  This makes following Jesus very difficult, and Jesus didn’t make it easy to do.

Jesus at one point had a large crowd following him, and many of them were thinking about being his disciple.  Jesus announced to the crowd, “If you want to follow me, your parents and friends and everyone you know will think you hate them.  You will have to act like it, because you must give up everything to be my disciple.  In fact, you will have to give up your inheritance, your possessions, even your own life, if you are a disciple of mine.

            “Let’s say someone wanted to build a skyscraper, and then halfway through it, he ran out of money.  Everyone passing by would laugh at it because he didn’t plan ahead to know how much it would cost.  Even so, before you become my disciple, look at how much it will cost you.
            “In the same way, if there was a king that had an army of ten thousand, but he was being attacked by another king with an army of twenty thousand.  Wouldn’t the first king wave the white flag and ask for terms of surrender?  And wouldn’t he give up everything he has in order to gain peace?  Even so, if you want peace on the day of judgement, you will have to give up everything you possess.”

            One of the crowd then came up to Jesus and said, “I want to be your disciple. I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus replied, “God has provided even the animals of the world homes, but I have no home—remember that, if you choose to follow me.”
            Another wanted to be Jesus’ disciple, and they asked, “But first let me say goodbye to my family.”  Jesus replied, “Elijah allowed his disciple Elisha to say goodbye to his family.  But one more important than Elijah is here now.  If you turn back away from me, then you are not worthy of God’s kingdom.”
            Jesus came up to another and said, “Follow me.”  That one asked, “Let me first bury my father, he is sick.”  Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you follow me.”

            Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, came up to Jesus and asked, “Lord, when you are ruler of the kingdom of God, we have a great favor to ask you.”  Jesus said, “Yes, what is it?”  They replied, “We would like to rule with you, one of us on one side of you, and the other on the other.”  Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup I am to drink and to be baptized the way that I will?  Are you ready to suffer and die?”  They said, “Yes, anything, Lord.”  Jesus said, “Well, you will suffer like that, but I don’t think you really understand.  Even so, the high positions in the kingdom of God aren’t mine to grant—only the Father can determine those positions.”

            The other 10 heard that James and John asked this, and they were angry.  Jesus heard their murmuring and said, “Look, if you guys really want the top positions in God’s kingdom, then you’ll have to work at it now.  If you want to be first, then be last.  If you want to be great, then be lowly.  The rulers of this world, they call themselves “ministers” or “servants of the state”.  But in fact they rule harshly.  But you are not to be like that.  If you want to be the greatest, then now you need to be a slave.  In the same way, the Son of Man is giving up everything for the sake of others, in order to deliver them from slavery to sin.”

            At one point, Jesus was at a party, and he told the guests of the party, “Let me give you a good rule.  If you want to be seen as important, don’t fight for the best seats.  Otherwise your host will ask you to move somewhere else, and then you will look like an idiot.  Rather, sit in the worst places, so your host will come up to you and say, ‘Why are you sitting here?  Why don’t you sit up front?’  And then everyone will see how important you are.”

            Jesus then spoke to the host of the party, “If you want to have a party that will really give you honor, then don’t bother inviting your friends and family who can pay you back.  Sure, they’ll like you, but God will give you nothing.  But if you invite the poor, homeless and needy to your party, then God will give you honor that you would never gain on earth.”

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Jesus' Acceptance and Rejection

Jesus knew that for the Kingdom to truly be of God, it must be open to everyone, without exception.  This doesn't mean that there weren't dividing lines, but one couldn't be excluded by race or class or sex or disability.  Everyone must have the same opportunity of acceptance.

This doesn't mean that Jesus gave everyone equal opportunities.  After all, if one wanted to connect to God, a healthy Jewish male adult had a better opportunity to do that than anyone.  They were the only ones who could enter into God's house, the only ones who were considered to be heard by God.  Jewish women were somewhat accepted, but non-Jews were completely excluded, unacceptable.

Jesus made it clear that Gentiles had the same opportunity as anyone else to enter God's kingdom.  If they showed faithfulness to God and belief in God's Messiah to save them, they were in.  This is a radical notion, especially among the first century Jewish theologians, who had deep debates of how pure one had to be in order to be acceptable to God.  And if there was one thing the Jewish theologians agreed upon, it is that no Gentile was pure.

Jesus said that only faith made one pure.  And for this reason, he made the most radical statement:  Not only will Gentiles be accepted, but many of those who have remained "pure" all their lives will be rejected, outcast by God.  Most because they refused to accept those whom God accepted.

Anytime we reject a mentally ill person, a homeless beggar, a child, a person of a different culture, a person with different spiritual habits than we, we are committing the same sin.  Should we reject those who Jesus accepts, we will find ourselves rejected by Him.

Let us take great care as to who we outcast, lest we find ourselves on the wrong side of the gate.