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 New Old Treasure

“Have ye understood all these things?”
[The disciples] say unto [Jesus], “Yea.”
And he said unto them, “Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old (Matthew 13:51-52).

This episode of teaching was over. Now was the time to receive the feedback, something with which we are familiar. Jesus had spoken many parables, and most likely had explained them (cf. Matthew 13:1-50, Mark 4:34). Did the disciples understand them? And do the disciples understand their importance?

They answer affirmatively. One might wonder if the answer is sincere– do they really think they understand the parables, or are they questioning inside and do not want to bring those questions to the surface? Since Jesus does not seem to question their response, and since Mark 4:34 gives us the impression that He explained the parables, we are justified in taking the disciples’ answer at face value. It will be made evident that they do not yet really understand what the Kingdom is all about, and how the Kingdom of God in Christ is far different from their expectations, but they probably do get the basic message of the parables.

Jesus then provides this cryptic parable of sorts as a conclusion to the matter. Those who are “scribes made disciples to the Kingdom,” or “scribes trained for the Kingdom,” are compared to a homeowner who brings new and old things out of his treasure.

The force of this statement is in its imagery: the master of a house bringing out old and new, not just one or the other. The reference to “scribes” makes Jesus’ referent clear– He speaks of the Scriptures. Jesus, after all, came to fulfill the old (Matthew 5:17-18), and in so doing, inaugurate the new (Hebrews 9:15). And while there is a definitive break in covenant– as Deuteronomy 4:2 says, one cannot amend a covenant, and those who are part of the new covenant are not bound to the old according to Hebrews 7-9– it is not as if there is complete discontinuity between the two. Jesus’ words resonate with the Old Testament– One Creator God Who is just but merciful, ruling over His Kingdom. Jesus Himself, in many ways, represents the ultimate goal of that which had been written. But Jesus is not just repeating the way things always had been; the Sermon on the Mount made that clear enough (Matthew 5-7). These teachings in the parables are the same– they continue with many of the themes of the old yet point to a new reality.

The direction and force of the parable, therefore, are clear enough, but who is the referent? We are told that “every scribe made a disciple to/trained for the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who are like this master of the house. Yet who are they?

That “they” are somehow followers of Jesus is evident; “they” are “made disciples” or “trained” in the direction of the Kingdom. Whether or not they become disciples because of their training– they know the old message, and then saw Jesus and how He conformed to the old and points in a new direction– is possible, as in the scribe whom Jesus commends in Mark 12:28-34. It is also quite possible that they are disciples of Christ trained for a scribal role who do such things.

This would not be of such note had Jesus just referred to them as “disciples,” as He so often does. He instead speaks of “scribes,” something He otherwise does for followers of His only in Matthew 23:34. There are plenty of references to scribes in the New Testament, but normally it speaks of the professional class of Jews who were responsible for knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, for transcribing and copying those Scriptures, and to provide instruction to the rest of the people who otherwise would not have access to said Law. Their great affection for the Law led them to be hostile toward Jesus and His claims; they, with the Pharisees, are condemned as hypocrites throughout Matthew 23, and they are part of the group conspiring against Him (Mark 14:1).

In context, the “scribes” are either all of the disciples or at least some of the disciples. They are the ones whom He is training– of whom He makes disciples– for the Kingdom. They will be given roles of teaching, instructing people in the ways of Christ (Matthew 18:18, Acts 2:42). Perhaps this is a way Matthew is referring to himself– he is a disciple, he will be one of those Apostles, and here he is writing a Gospel, a scribe writing out the story, connecting the old and the new.

The application, however, is relevant for all of those who teach in the Kingdom, and in many ways for everyone who participates in God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not new; it has its roots in God’s revelation of Himself in the creation, to the Patriarchs, and to Israel. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of God is not exactly like what has come before. It functions quite differently than the nation of Israel did.

Thus Jesus emphasizes the power and importance of the parables. Notice that this statement of Jesus is the conclusion to the matter of these parables. The disciples understand the parables; they are told, therefore, that scribes made disciples/trained in the Kingdom will bring out the old and the new. To know and understand the parables is to be trained in the Kingdom. One might say truly that there is more to the Kingdom than what can be divined in the parables; but one certainly cannot understand the Kingdom if one does not understand the parables concerning it which Jesus spoke!

The Kingdom has old and new elements as illustrated in the parables. We do well to be made disciples and trained in the Kingdom, being the scribes of God’s intention and desire, properly instructing and encouraging others in the truths of the Kingdom and the faith. Let us serve the Lord and understand His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Leaven

Another parable spake [Jesus] unto them; “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened (Matthew 13:33).

When we seek to think about pleasant things, or to find ways of describing people or things positively, fungi rarely make the list of possible comparisons. They are normally something we do not often consider (like yeast, or perhaps mushrooms) or rather unpleasant things (like mold and fungal infections).

Yeast, or leaven, is known for its expansive properties– it multiplies very quickly. A small amount of yeast, in the right conditions, will quickly expand and fill the space it is provided. This has been the secret to bread making for generations– if you want a lump of dough to rise, it must have the right amount of yeast in it. As it bakes, the yeast multiplies and expands, and the entire lump rises. The yeast is also partly responsible for that addictive smell of baking bread!

The image of leaven as an agent that starts small but expands mightily is used a few times in Scripture. Sometimes it is used negatively– Jesus describes the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees as leaven (Matthew 16:6-12), and Paul warns that false teachings and sinful practices “leaven the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6, Galatians 5:9).

But the image need not always be negative, for Jesus uses the image in a positive way in Matthew 13:33. Having described the Kingdom of Heaven as a mustard plant, with a small seed that grows to become a tree in which birds can nest (Matthew 13:31-32), Jesus continues down the same theme by describing the Kingdom as the leaven that a woman hid in three measures of flour that leavens the whole lump.

The general message of both parables are the same: the growth of the Kingdom will be exponential despite its humble origins. Just as a very little amount of yeast filled three measures of flour, so the Kingdom that begins with the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit will expand from 12 to 3000+ to thousands upon thousands all over the earth (Acts 1:8, 2:41, etc.). The proclamation and advancement of the Kingdom is a wonderful story, clearly demonstrating the power and wisdom of God that is greater than anything man can imagine (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). If we wanted to get the most important message of life across, sending twelve fairly unreliable and uneducated witnesses would probably not make our list of possible options. Nevertheless, we see how effectively it was done by the power of God!

Nevertheless, there is a bit of distinction between the two parables. A mustard plant, by virtue of necessity, grows out in the open– while there are roots growing underneath the soil, without sun and water, the plant will not prosper. Yeast, however, works entirely behind the scenes. From the outside you can see the effect of the growth of the yeast– the rising lump of dough– but you cannot see how it is working internally.

So it is with the Kingdom. There are times when the growth of the Kingdom happens in a public and spectacular way, like on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Nevertheless, both in the first century and now, much of the advancement of the Kingdom happens more behind the scenes.

This growth comes about on the basis of many opportunities. It happens when believers go about doing good and living holy and upright lives (Romans 12:9, Galatians 2:10, 6:10). It happens as believers have conversations with friends, associates, relatives, and others about God’s truth in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16, Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 3:15). It happens as believers trust in and pray to God, as His Word is studied, as believers strengthen and build one another up, and in many other kinds of opportunities (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18, 2 Timothy 2:15, Hebrews 10:24-25).

We may not always see how this growth happens, but the results will be evident. God is magnified and praised while more and more come to the knowledge of the truth. This is how God expects the Kingdom to grow!

As we seek to serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and advance His Kingdom, let us remember the humble leaven. No matter what public proclamation is made, let us remember that much of the way that God’s purposes are advanced are done behind the scenes, imperceptible to most. Let us trust in God and participate in His work of advancing His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Thorny Soil

“And others fell upon the thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked them…And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful” (Matthew 13:7, 22).

“I’m too busy.”

If there were a universally agreed upon anthem for our modern world, this would surely be it. It seems that everyone is always too busy. There is always too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. How many times have we made or heard pleas for there to be more than 24 hours in a day, or for time to stop for a moment so we can get “caught up”?

Part of our difficulty involves the unprecedented number of people and things that compete for our time. Employers are demanding more hours and work out of employees. Depending on our phase of life, our parents, children, and/or spouses place demands on our time. There is the ever-present computer with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, e-mail, games, and a thousand other ways of spending time. Not to be outdone, television and movies and other forms of entertainment also beckon. Beyond all of these are sports activities, book reading, indoor and outdoor maintenance, and all sorts of other activities. Little wonder, then, that we never have any time!

Many of the purveyors of entertainment and other forms of distraction are quite aware of how busy we are, and so they work diligently to gain our attention. Forms of entertainment become more sophisticated and designed to draw you in and keep you watching or playing. News programs and politicians often use various scare tactics to attract your attention and support for their cause. All of these tactics are very seductive and very hard to resist!

While the quantity of distractions and forms of entertainment today might be unprecedented, the root problem is not. As Jesus presents the parable of the sower, He describes the third type of soil as the “thorny soil.” The thorny soil is full of thorn-bushes and other weeds. In such ground, the sower’s seed cannot take root and grow, for it is out-muscled by the weeds.

Notice that the problem here is not the soil quality in and of itself, as it was with the “road” soil and the “rocky” soil. The soil is not the problem– the competitors for that particular patch of soil are the problem! If the competitors– the thorns– were removed, the seed would grow and multiply.

Jesus goes on to say that the thorny soil represents those people who hear the Word of God and believe it, but the cares of this world, the desire for riches, and various lusts and pleasures choke out the Word, and it becomes unfruitful (Matthew 13:22, Mark 4:19, Luke 8:14).

We see this often when we present the Word of God to others. As statistics show, the majority of Americans believe in God, Jesus, and even His resurrection. Therefore, they know that God exists. They know that Jesus exists and that He is Lord. Many such people know that they should probably be assembling with Christians somewhere and should be serving the Lord more faithfully.

And then there is the “but.” They know they should follow God, but there is not enough time. They should assemble with Christians, but they have to work, or Sunday morning is their only time to rest and relax or spend time with family, or it is the time for a given sporting event or other form of entertainment. They know that they should devote themselves to God, but there is always something in the way– money, entertainment, sports, even family and friends.

Jesus’ image of the thorns is very apt, for it gets to the heart of the problem. As said previously, the problem is not with the soil but with the competition for the soil. The difference, then, between “thorny” soil and “good” soil is not the soil itself but the cultivation thereof. The invasion of the “thorns” is an ever-present danger, and great care must be taken to cultivate the ground to clear away the thorns so as to allow the seed to grow and multiply.

This speaks to the need for priorities. No one can assume that time will automatically be made for God and spiritual things. As with all things, we must make time. Left on our own we will succumb to the temptation to play around more on the Internet, watch another TV show, or do a thousand other things. We must decide to make God the priority– to make His Kingdom and His righteousness the most important thing in our life (Matthew 6:33).

We must hasten to add that not all of these “thorns” are inherently evil. In fact, there are many “good” things with which we can fill our time– our family, our friends, employment, helping others, etc.– but even these “good” things can distract us from the ultimate good– God and His Kingdom. We must first serve Christ– and then reflect Christ to our family, at work, and in other realms of life (Ephesians 5:22-6:9). God must be first and foremost.

There have always been and will always be a lot of people who know that God exists and and that they need to do better at following after Him but remain distracted by money, cares of the world, and various pleasures. They have just as much potential for good in promoting God’s purposes as those who are the “good” soil if only they would clear out the weeds and focus on the Word of God. The thorns, however, are an ever-present danger. If we are not careful, even if we begin as good soil, we can allow the thorns to move in, becoming distracted with worldly cares and concerns, and prove to be unfruitful in the end.

Too many people, upon looking back at their lives, realize just how much time was wasted on what ultimately proved to be vain and futile. Some are fortunate enough to have come to repentance before the end, and simply lament all the time that they could have done great things for God but were too busy with themselves and the cares of this world. Sadly, for too many, this realization will come too late, with bitter tears and lamentation, as they hear of their doom (Matthew 7:21-23). It is never too late to clear out the thorns and to cultivate the good seed– let us all remove the distractions of the world and make God and His righteousness the ultimate priority in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Two Sons

“But what think ye? A man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work to-day in the vineyard.’ And he answered and said, ‘I will not:’ but afterward he repented himself, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir:’ and went not. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They say, “The first.”
Jesus saith unto them, “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not; but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye saw it, did not even repent yourselves afterward, that ye might believe him” (Matthew 21:28-32).

Jesus’ parable of the two sons is a rather uncomfortable parable. We find ourselves reflected in at least one of the sons.

The first son begins as the rebellious one. He dares to refuse to do the will of his father, but then realizes his mistake, and turns and does what his father desires. We can see that this son does, eventually, do the will of his father, as it is said in Matthew 21:31.

The first son demonstrates the importance of repentance and the hope that exists for those who have rebelled against God. He is very much like the “prodigal son” in Luke 15:11-32. At some point, each and every one of us refused the call of our Father and went our own way (Romans 3:23), but thanks to His love and grace, we can be reconciled back to God in Christ (Titus 3:3-7). And then we must get to work, just as the first son did (Titus 3:8)!

Yet it is the second son that is the focus of this parable. In context, it is a condemnation of the religious authorities who certainly professed belief in God and yet rejected John His prophet and Jesus His Son (Matthew 21:23-27, 21:33-46). They were willing, as the second son, to tell the Father “yes,” and yet they did not do what He told them to do!

Jesus’ conclusion is sharp and biting, just as it was intended. The people whom everyone recognized were great sinners were going to enter the Kingdom before the “holiest” and most respected religious authorities! Tax collectors and prostitutes were willing to humble themselves, listen to John and Jesus, and change their ways (cf. Luke 7:36-50, 19:1-9). The religious authorities refused!

It is better that we find ourselves to be like the first son. God is more concerned with our action than our profession– it does not do us any good to claim that we are followers of Jesus if we are not actually doing what Jesus says to do (Matthew 7:21-23, James 1:22-25)! We must never allow ourselves to become like the religious authorities and become self-righteous, for repentant sinners always get further than self-righteous hypocrites before God (Matthew 9:11-13, Luke 18:10-14)!

In the end, we cannot tell God “yes” and yet do nothing. If we tell God “yes,” that we believe in Him and that He is our Lord, and yet we do not preach the Gospel to our fellow man (Romans 1:16), or we do not show him mercy and kindness in his time of need (Galatians 6:10), or we do not encourage fellow Christians (Hebrews 10:24-25), or we do not show love and compassion as His Son did (Colossians 3:12-14), what do you think will happen to us (Matthew 7:21-23)? How can we expect to receive God’s blessings if we do not do what He tells us to do?

Who are we? Are we the first son who once refused God but have learned better and now do His will? Or are we as the second son, always willing to say yes, but in the end do nothing? Let us be as the first son, do the will of the Father, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry