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 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