Justified in the Sight of Men

And the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things; and they scoffed at [Jesus].
And he said unto them, “Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

Luke, of all the Gospel writers, spends a decent amount of time chronicling Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees as He is about to head to Jerusalem. We find within this context some of Jesus’ most famous parables and stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the shrewd steward, the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 15:1-16:31). These specific narratives are unique to Luke’s narrative, even if their themes are consistent with the rest of the Gospel authors. Why, as the story of Jesus’ life is reaching its most climactic point, does Luke record all of these discussions?

There is much to be gained from each story on its own merits. Nevertheless, they are told and placed as they are as part of an overall critique, primarily of the Pharisees, exposing the wide gulf between their true condition before God and the righteous appearance they offered to others.

Jesus makes the critique explicit in Luke 16:15. He charges the Pharisees with justifying themselves in the sight of men, honoring what is exalted in the sight of men, as opposed to that which is exalted in the sight of God.

It is easy to hear this critique and consider it in terms of 21st century America, concluding how the Pharisees’ religiosity was not really significant, their worldliness was apparent, and they honored the “secular” over the “spiritual.” In so doing we would be imposing our categories and concepts upon a time and place where they are quite foreign. The Pharisees are not being condemned as secularists; they are being condemned because they continue to justify the type of religiosity that marked Second Temple Judaism in a Gentile world.

All of the parables and stories of this section underscore this critique. The Pharisees murmur about Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2); Jesus responds with the parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and the prodigal son/older brother (Luke 15:11-32). It is hard to escape the understanding that Jesus speaks of the Pharisees in terms of the “older brother,” showing the distance between their “entitled” attitude and the merciful love of the Father. In showing distance and alienation from “sinners,” the Pharisees are maintaining a “righteous” attitude that looked down upon all defilement and transgression; they were trying, at some level, to remain unstained from defilement, and to maintain holiness. Yet this was a socially acceptable type of exclusion; that is how they could get away with it and still be honored as the “righteous” in society.

The Pharisees’ scoffing in Luke 16:14 is related to the parable of the shrewd steward (Luke 16:1-12) and the declaration that a man cannot serve two masters, both God and money (Luke 16:13). Luke condemns the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:13), and his condemnation is just. Nevertheless, this idea was pervasive throughout society at that time. After all, God blesses those whom He loves and causes affliction for those who disobey Him; how many proverbs were written indicating the honor of wealth and the shame of poverty? Even the disciples go along with this “conventional wisdom,” expressing complete astonishment at Jesus’ declaration of the difficulty for the wealthy to be saved, wondering how anyone could thus be saved if the rich were not (Luke 18:23-26)! Therefore, the Pharisees’ love of money was entirely in line with conventional thinking of the day, no doubt married with a sense of upright piety.

Jesus will continue on with declarations about the Law and Prophets being until John, how people seeking to enter the Kingdom, and yet how nothing would be modified in the Law until all was fulfilled (Luke 16:16-17), a declaration regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Luke 16:18), and then the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The Pharisees presume to understand the Law and the Prophets and thus the will of God, and yet in their declarations they add to and subtract from the Law, focus more on the technical legality of the Law than the intentions of its Author, and otherwise find ways to justify their desires with a distorted understanding of the Law as opposed to serving God through the Law according to God’s intentions.

In the end, the Pharisees were externally everything every first century Israelite would expect from a holy person. And yet they remained separated from God, exalting what was abominable in His sight.

We do well to consider Luke’s focus on these conversations and what it shows about the Pharisees, lest we walk in the same path toward destruction. As we seek holiness and righteousness in conduct (cf. 1 Peter 1:14-16), it becomes easy to feel superior to those who are “sinners” and who are “defiled by the world,” and seek to fully separate from them and condemn them. That may be what men expect, and one can certainly seek to justify such behavior in the sight of men with constant appeals to “holiness” and “withdrawal from evil,” but since it entirely neglects humility, love, kindness, compassion, and mercy, such is abominable in the sight of God. It also proves quite easy to honor wealth and the love of money and even do so with religious motivations and with a pious veneer; there will always be many who will have no qualms with the pretense of religion cloaking a covetous and greedy spirit. Yet the love of money remains the root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and we do not do well if we seek to minimize the impact of Jesus’ lamentation of how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven in Luke 18:24-25.

It is also easy to view Scripture like the Pharisees did: a source of justification for whatever thoughts, desires, or actions we seek to justify. In such situations the conclusion is never in doubt. The justification may persuade men, but it dishonors God and shows who really is in control. If God is the center of our existence and we seek to please Him, then we will allow His message in Scripture to change us into conformity with Jesus (Romans 8:29). This is not a matter of the spirit of the message or the letter of the message, but the proper marriage of both the spirit and the letter of what God has revealed in Scripture. There is a reason why Jesus first declared that it was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a tittle of the Law to fall and then to speak about marriage and divorce (Luke 16:17-18): the Pharisees might have been technically accurate with some of their interpretations, but by missing the entire intention of God as revealed in other Scriptures, they were justifying things which were contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Matthew 19:1-9).

Many falsely reason that if we focus on the “spirit” of the message, we will be led to compromise or minimize the importance of the “letter” of the message. In reality, as the examples of Jesus and the Pharisees show, by understanding the “spirit” of the message, we will honor it to the “letter”; it is by focusing on the “letter” to the exclusion of the “spirit” which will more often lead us astray, just as it did the Pharisees. And yet it all goes back to our intentions. Do we seek to honor self in the pretense of honoring God or to honor God as God and follow after Him? Are we seeking to look righteous in our current predicament, using elaborate justifications to persuade men of our religiosity, while God remains remote and unimpressed?

We can know the answer by how we react to the message of Jesus’ parables and stories. Do we feel the joy of the people who lost their sheep or coin? Can we feel thankful for the merciful love of the Father for both the prodigal son and the older brother? Do we understand how love of God and love of money are mutually exclusive? Do we sympathize with Lazarus? Or do we feel as if the people who found the sheep and coin are irrationally exuberant? Do we feel the Father is acting shamefully in how He welcomes the prodigal son? Do we chafe at the idea that the love of money and love of God are mutually exclusive? Is our sympathy more directed toward the rich man?

Do we want the justification of men that passes away or the justification that comes from God as His humble servant, trusting in Christ the Lord? Let us seek the latter and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Tenth Commandment

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s (Exodus 20:17).

God had now come to the tenth and concluding commandment. Matters regarding man’s relationship with God had been thoroughly covered– Israel was to have no other god before God, they were not to make an image of anything to bow down to it and serve it, they were not to take the name of the LORD their God in vain, and they were to honor the Sabbath and rest upon it (Exodus 20:3-11). The Israelites’ relationship with one another was also established: they were to honor their parents, and they were not to kill, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness (Exodus 20:12-16). As the list concludes, God comes to a much more fundamental challenge, one that all too often leads to the other problems already addressed: covetousness, the desire of the human heart (Exodus 20:17).

The desire to have something that belongs to another is one of the most primal desires of humanity and one of the hardest to control. We might already have spouses, houses, employees, or other possessions. It is easy, however, to think that the “grass is greener on the other side.” Our neighbor’s spouse may seem more alluring, their house nicer, their stuff of better quality. Whatever the justification or the reason may be, the result is the same– it is easy to want it, and to do things in order to get it.

Covetousness is one of the main impulses that lead to other sins. David had many wives, but coveted Bathsheba– and ultimately committed adultery and murder in the process (2 Samuel 11:1-27). Despite being king of Israel, and having much property, Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard, and his desire led to false witness and murder (1 Kings 21:1-16). By falling prey to covetousness, these men fell prey to violations of two other commandments. They also prove just how irrational covetousness can be– it is not as if David had no other women around, or that Ahab had no other property to enjoy. Even though they already had plenty, they wanted more– things that did not belong to them but still looked nice. And, in the heat of covetousness, acted very poorly.

But if covetousness is what leads to other sin, why does God wait to mention it until the end? Perhaps it is because how private covetousness is. Dishonoring parents tends to be a public matter. Murder, adultery, theft, and false witness leave victims in their wake. These are all sins done “outside the body.” While covetousness often does lead to the committing of other sins (cf. also James 1:13-15), it does not necessarily produce any physical symptoms. One can covet without any other person knowing it.

The tenth commandment, therefore, presents quite a difficult challenge, one that Jesus will discuss in greater length in Matthew 5:17-48. Righteousness cannot merely limit and direct one’s outward conduct, although that is included. It cannot be enough to just not violate one’s neighbor, his property, or his reputation publicly. In order to be truly righteous one must control the very thoughts, impulses, and attitudes that might lead to such conduct. God tells Israel in the Ten Commandments that it is not enough to just not steal or not to commit adultery– one must not even nurse the covetous desire that leads to theft and adultery. Jesus will later expand on that premise– it is not enough to avoid murdering your brother, you must not even hate him or despise him in your heart (Matthew 5:21-26). Looking upon any woman with lustful intent is committing adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-30). Not harming your neighbor is good; loving him as yourself, blessing him and praying for him even if that love is not reciprocated, is better (Matthew 5:43-48)!

Moses will later declare to Israel that they were to “love the LORD [their] God with all [their] heart, and with all [their] soul, and with all [their] might” (Deuteronomy 6:5), a message affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-38 as the “great and first” commandment. Such complete love cannot exist only on the surface– therefore, Israel’s concern could not just involve their surface conduct. Such complete love demands complete reformation of the whole man– not just outward conduct, but also mind, body, and soul. God hints at this for Israel with the tenth commandment, showing that sinful desire is as bad as sinful action, since it is a precursor to sinful action. We should not allow this message to be lost upon us as we seek to serve the Lord Jesus, following in His footsteps, understanding that God is as concerned about how we think and how we control our desires as much as He is concerned about how we conduct ourselves outwardly. Let us not even covet so that we may not break God’s commands!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Futility of Idols

And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the sojourners of Gilead, said unto Ahab, “As YHWH, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1).

Here we have the moment that James describes in James 5:16-18: Elijah, prophet of God but still a man with a nature like ours, prayed to God, and it did not rain for three and a half years. such is a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer, proving that God can do amazing things when His people devote themselves to prayer and righteousness.

Yet there certainly is a dark side to this prayer– Elijah has just consigned the land and its people to drought for three and a half years. A drought means no rain, and when there is no rain, crops fail. When crops fail, there is no food. When there is no food, people starve, suffer, and die.

We might feel inclined, through the lens of “modern sensibilities,” to think of this as utterly merciless, cruel, barbaric, and inhuman. What kind of prophet is Elijah to consign his people to famine and death? What kind of God would withhold rain and thus lead His people to starvation and death? Or, in less judgmental terms, why is it that Elijah prays for it to not rain as opposed to praying for some other demonstration? Why does God punish Israel with a lack of rain as opposed to some other calamity or difficulty?

In order to make some sense of this we must understand what is going on at the time. Elijah has been called by God– whose personal name is YHWH or “Yahweh”– because Ahab king of Israel is exceedingly wicked (1 Kings 16:30). He and his wife Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, have rejected YHWH in favor of Baal, Asherah, and the Canaanite gods (1 Kings 16:31-33). Israel followed along in this apostasy.

Baal, in the Canaanite belief system, was a storm god and a fertility god. Baal was believed to provide the storms that led to crop growth and thus fertility. Baal is in a contest against Mot, the god of death; when Baal wins, there is fertility; when Mot wins, there is famine and death. Much of the belief system of the Canaanites surrounded the idea of fertility, both in crops and in child-bearing.

We should not imagine that God or Elijah really want the people to suffer for suffering’s sake. Instead, a powerful lesson is being taught: the gods of the world are emptiness and nothing. During the drought, no doubt, Ahab and Jezebel constantly sacrificed to Baal and plead for mercy from him, along with many of the Israelites. During the contest on Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal plead with Baal, even cutting themselves in the process (1 Kings 18:26-29). Yet, as the Kings author says, “there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (1 Kings 18:29). Baal was not there– because there was no Baal.

Afterward YHWH demonstrated His existence powerfully with fire from heaven and a return of the rains (1 Kings 18:30-46). The lesson was evident: YHWH was God, not Baal. YHWH is responsible for the rains and fertility, not Baal.

This was not the first time YHWH had made such a demonstration; the plagues upon Egypt in Exodus 8-12 are also demonstrations that YHWH, and not the gods of the Egyptians, is really in control. It’s a demonstration with which it is hard to argue: if you believe that Ra is the sun god, but at the command of YHWH the sun turns to darkness, and your pleas to Ra change nothing, then it is clear at least that YHWH is stronger than Ra if Ra even exists. It is only when idols are dethroned that people really reflect on the power of the One True God.

We should not think that we are much different today. Granted, we do not have many people going to temples and bowing down to statues of perceived divinities as was prevalent in Biblical times. But that does not mean that we have solved the challenge of idolatry– far from it (1 John 5:21)! Our idols are just more abstract. And we still need powerful demonstrations of their ultimate inefficiency and inefficacy.

For generations money has been an idol (Matthew 6:24, Ephesians 5:5). It is easy for people to trust in their material goods– their stuff, their bank accounts, their investments, and even their government’s entitlement programs. And yet what was powerfully demonstrated during our great recession? Wealth is uncertain, and cannot be trusted (1 Timothy 6:17)! Government is proven to be uncertain and ultimately not entirely trustworthy; stuff also cannot bring satisfaction. Health, status, prestige, relationships, fame, the Internet, science, you name it– all of them are really subject to the One True God, and in and of themselves, cannot save, and cannot be entirely trusted. Unfortunately, all too often, we only perceive this after they have been rendered ineffective and inefficacious in our lives. It is only in crisis do we learn that we need to rely upon God and not the gods of the world.

If we want to avoid needless suffering we would do well to learn from Israel’s example and trust in the One True God and not the gods of this world. God always has a way of demonstrating His power and authority over every false god, and we would do well to trust in Him and not suffer His chastisement!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Black Friday

And he said unto them, “Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).

“Black Friday” has come upon us again– the Friday after Thanksgiving, when many people get up very early and shop. Retailers like “black” Friday– if sales are high, they make good profits and get back in the “black”– hence the name. Many are scouring the advertisements and are trying to get the best deals for gifts for themselves or for others.

Unfortunately, “Black Friday” has recently become synonymous with chaos, disorder, and mayhem. Some people have been injured or even killed in stampedes when stores open their doors. All manner of ungodly, selfish behavior takes place in those stores when a mass of people all go toward the same items. How tragic is it that gift shopping is so often turned into something so ugly and self-serving!

There is certainly nothing wrong with going out and shopping on “Black Friday,” or investigating the various sales and finding the best deals. Nevertheless, we must remember that if we are believers in Jesus Christ, we must serve Him at all times, and reflect His love at every opportunity– including on Black Friday (cf. Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6, Luke 6:31).

As Jesus says, our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions. We must make sure that we do not get greedy or covetous on Black Friday or at any time, and elevate the desire to obtain products at low prices over our commitment to Christ. If we do not get the best deal, our lives will go on. If that perfect gift cannot be found, we should still be thankful that we have loved ones for whom we can give gifts. If we participate in “Black Friday” or other shopping days and act as ungodly and covetous as those in the world do, we have failed our Lord and have lost much, much more than we could ever gain through those inexpensive gifts!

But if we show love, kindness, compassion, and mercy, even on Black Friday, we might brighten someone else’s day. We can certainly let our light shine brightly during the Christmas shopping season, enjoy a better time ourselves, and be a force for good in the midst of this often selfish and greedy world. Let us serve the Risen Lord at all times!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Problem of Wealth

And Jesus said unto his disciples, “Verily I say unto you, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
And when the disciples heard it, they were astonished exceedingly, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
And Jesus looking upon them said to them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23-26).

One hotly contested aspect of Jesus’ teachings involves His words toward those who are rich in material wealth. Some have taken Jesus’ words and made them a call for a more level playing field. Others take the opposite approach and attempt to minimize these teachings and try to find some way to glorify wealth. Many have the same question as the disciples. Some wonder how just it is for Jesus to come down so harshly on the rich.

Jesus’ words were not designed to overthrow the concept of money or wealth. Nor is it an absolutely true statement that all rich people are going to be condemned (1 Timothy 6:9-10, 17-19). Yet Jesus’ words do strike at the heart of the problems with wealth.

These words are spoken immediately after the “rich young ruler” departs from Jesus sorrowfully. This young man wanted to inherit eternal life and even had great respect for the Law (Matthew 19:16-20). Nevertheless, when asked to give up all his wealth and to follow Jesus, he walked away (Matthew 19:21-22).

What would lead this young man to make such a fateful decision? Jesus perceived that he trusted his wealth more than God. His material wealth kept him from the Kingdom of God.

We must greatly respect Jesus’ statement that it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without turning it into an absolute. Wealth casts a strong spell upon people. Wealth provides the illusion of stability and contentment: if we have much stored up, we end up entrusting our future to our wealth and not so much on God. Wealth rarely comes without great effort expended to obtain it, and for those who desire great wealth, what they have is rarely enough (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Covetousness, selfishness, arrogance, and idolatry often mark those who have wealth.

Who do we trust? We have learned the lesson that riches are uncertain (1 Timothy 6:17), but that has not stopped many from continuing to press on after wealth. Yet there is no true stability there. Salvation can never be found in riches, no matter how vast (Matthew 16:26). We must trust in God, the One who is able to accomplish what is impossible for mankind.

How do we know whom we trust? Put yourself in the shoes of that rich young ruler. If Jesus asked you personally to sell all that you have, give to the poor, obtain treasure in Heaven, and follow after Him, would you be willing to do so? Or would you also go away sorrowfully? We all know the answer that we should give, but would that be the answer we would give?

Let us not put our trust in the uncertain material wealth of the world that causes anxiety for so many. Instead, let us trust in the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and obtain the peace that comes from Him (Matthew 6:33-34, Matthew 28:18, Philippians 4:4-7)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Power of Contentment

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me (Philippians 4:11-13).

It has been made beyond clear that we are entering difficult times. Economies are struggling. Jobs are being lost. People are losing their homes. Uncertainty abounds. Fear is not far behind.

Yet it is at this time that the power of contentment is made evident. Learning to appreciate what you have and not to constantly seek after what you do not have, while not easy, is the only path to true peace and stability while sojourning on the earth.

You may lose your job, but you will still have other forms of support. You may lose your house, but you will still have a family. You may lose your health, but you will keep relationships. And even if you were to experience the greatest of cataclysms and lose your job, house, family, other forms of support, and health, you still have your soul and the love of God our Father through the Son Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

As it is written,

But godliness with contentment is great gain: for we brought nothing into the world, for neither can we carry anything out; but having food and covering we shall be therewith content (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Contrary to what marketers tell you, you do not “need” a flat-screen television, you do not “need” a cell phone, you do not “need” your own house, two cars, and this, that, and the other. You need God and His strength, and when you seek His way, He will take care of the basic human necessities– food and covering (cf. Matthew 6:33).

When we have the attitude that God, daily bread, and shelter are all we really need, we can be better prepared to appreciate other blessings which God bestows upon us– and better prepared to persevere if they get taken away.

Learning contentment is not easy, but it is the only “recession-proof” attitude. Contentment provides inner peace that transcends the highs of economic prosperity and the lows of economic depression, and stabilizes the faith of those who would believe in God. More importantly, it preserves the soul from overconsumption and the service of the idol of covetousness!

Let us decide to seek contentment in whatever circumstance in which we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry