The benefit of a little guilt – Matthew 21:28-32

After entering Jerusalem, Jesus told a parable about two sons.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”

Jesus was speaking here to the chief priests and elders of the people who had just questioned his authority (v.23).  He explained this parable without any request to do so, making sure that his audience knew exactly what he was saying by it.

The lesson has to do with doing God’s will in the end, as a final outcome.  Many people express good intentions.  The chief priests and elders would have been perceived as just the kind of people who were known for doing God’s will.  If that were the case, they should have been the first in line expressing their repentance and receiving the baptism of John. 

When we understand the nature of sin, we realize that we are all in need of repentance.  That sense of guilt would be even more pronounced when coming face-to-face with the likes of John the Baptist.  Yet these guys are so numb that they even question the authority of Christ.  Their relationship with God was little more than a nice show, having no humility or sense of need.

On the other hand, tax collectors like Matthew our author and prostitutes saw their sin.  Like the first son in the parable, they did not do the will of the Father from the beginning, but later changed their mind.  They repented at John’s preaching and followed Jesus with transformed lives.  In a culture obsessed as ours is with not making anyone feel bad, let’s take note that as far as Jesus is concerned a little guilt can be a good thing.  There is no repentance without it.

 

Seeking positions – Matthew 20:20-28

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

There may be a proper motive and a right way to seek desired positions within the church, but it isn’t easy.  Whatever it is, James and John still had to learn how to do it and so did their mother.

To refuse a position of responsibility, should it be offered to us, is to risk sounding like Moses.  He argued with God at the burning bush over his calling to lead Israel out of Egypt.  At the same time, to seek the position is risk looking like Zebedee’s family in the passage above.

God calls people to take positions of responsibility.  We don’t call ourselves.  The most balanced attitude toward this service/greatness tension might have been both expressed and lived out by Archbishop William Temple, who said, “I have never sought and never refused a position of greater responsibility,”*

The key might be in the love of the service itself, rather than the position.  Paul put it like this in 1 Timothy 3:1, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”  The task, not the office, is the motivator.  Jesus uses terms like “servant,” “slave,” “to serve,” and “to give his life,” to describe his own mission.  Ours may look similar to his.

If we focus on service, we won’t get derailed by seeking positions.  It may be that a higher position of some sort will come our way.  If it doesn’t, we still get to serve right where we already are.

*Quoted in Green, M. (2001). The message of Matthew: the kingdom of heaven (p. 191). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Going last – Matthew 19:29-30

30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This verse does wonders to correct our outlook on life.  First, it discourages the bigger, better, faster, more mentality that we so often engage in.  If only … and everything would be all right.  And so we strive with all our might for whatever “…” is, on the assumption that if we achieve it, we would be happy, or finally attain our rightful position in life.  Sometimes this is really about seeking to be first.  If so, we can be pretty sure God is not pleased with it.  The verse come right after a verse on self-sacrifice or self-denial.

29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

If self-sacrifice or self-denial involves putting ourselves last for the sake of Jesus, then we can do so happily, trusting that we lose nothing in the process.  It will likely even lead to long-term gain.

Second, we sometimes feel “last” unintentionally.  Despite our best efforts, things just have not gone our way.  This may be a blessing in disguise.  If we had our way, we might have succeeded and been able to put ourselves first, and then what?  In the Great Future Reversal of Status (a term I just made up), we would lose.  Honestly, we would rather be last now.  There is little advantage to the attainment of visible status at the present time.  So says Jesus.

Our goal must be to put Jesus first no matter what.  There may be an “opportunity” to give something or someone up for him, though it may be disappointing in the present moment.  Then, of course, we can often give priority to others.  Let their needs be met, even if we do without, for Jesus’ sake.  That’s often hard and doesn’t feel right or enjoyable most of the time.  The point is we should not live for the present, but for eternity.  Going last is the way to do it.

Little faith – Matthew 17:14-20

Coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, this was the scene for Jesus and his disciples (from the ESV).

14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Let’s admit right from the start that rebuking a demon and getting immediate, happy results is no small thing, unless you are Jesus.  He did this kind of thing all the time.  Most of us, let’s also admit, probably fall into the category of the disciples.  They failed.

Sometimes failure just happens.  Maybe what we tried was a bad idea.  Maybe it wasn’t God’s will.  Maybe the failure was in our approach, so we need to go back and try again with a lesson learned.  Sometimes we fail due to lack of faith.  That was the case here.

Jesus doesn’t attribute all problems to demons nor all failure to too little faith, so neither should we.  Sometimes, however, the battle is purely spiritual.  The gates of hell are busy in their futile efforts to prevail against the church.  Their failure is assured in the long run.  Jesus will see to that.  In the short run, we have to take a little responsibility.

Let’s willingly engage in the work of spiritual warfare, remembering that we serve a big God who promises victory.  And let’s not be hindered by our all-too-usual lack of faith.  The strength of the church, the souls of the lost and the advancement of God’s will in the world are dependent, to some extent, on our faithful engagement.

On taking up the cross – Matthew 16:24-28

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, one of the requirements of all citizens is to feel good.  When they don’t, which is often, they pop pills containing a hangover-free drug called soma, which makes them feel better immediately.  The worse they feel, the more soma they take, and all is well – at least until it isn’t.  But the readily available soma never seems to run out.  For extreme happiness, say on a weekend, larger doses of soma become pleasantly hallucinogenic. 

This is not the world we live in.  Ours is old and seemingly less brave, though we can argue that it takes a lot more courage to live in it.  Our Savior set the example by walking the path of crucifixion, the same path he calls us to in Matthew 16:24-27.

2Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

At the end of the day, or the age, really, what we want is to have followed Jesus.  Much of the time this doesn’t involve feeling pleasant, at least not in the way our flesh desires.  Crosses are not meant to be comfortable.  But there is a different type of satisfaction, a type that Huxley’s citizens were never allowed to achieve.  It’s a confidence inspired by following our Savior, of losing our lives in order to find them.  This path has a certainty to it, its satisfaction has a depth, that no amount of soma can give us.

Jim Elliot said it really well when he said, “I may no longer depend on pleasant impulses to bring me before the Lord. I must rather respond to principles I know to be right, whether I feel them to be enjoyable or not.”  

We must not forget, however, that self-denial while following Jesus is only temporary.  It’s the price we pay for discipleship, for walking near to our cross-bearing Lord.  On the other side of the resurrection, we look forward to a cross-free, existence for all eternity in a new heaven, a new earth and a New Jerusalem.

Great faith – Matthew 15:21-28

Sometimes we think of great faith as the kind of faith that prays for great things and sees amazing answers to prayer.  That is probably how great faith frequently looks, but great faith need not always look the same.  Consider the case of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The greatness in the woman’s faith is not that she asked for anything more than others might ask.  The Gospels give several examples of people coming to Jesus on behalf of their children and Jesus healing them or even raising them from the dead.  He cast out plenty of demons.

Jesus commends her faith before granting her request, but only after an interaction in which Jesus seems to refuse her.  First he says nothing (v.23), then he pushes the Gentile/Jewish distinction beyond what we might even consider polite (vv. 24-26).  Her humility and persistence in the face of Christ’s seeming condescension and persistent refusal brings out his praise (v.28).

If you are like me you have several prayer requests that God has not seen fit to answer even after many years, maybe decades or most of your life.  And like me you struggle and are tempted to give up.  You might see numerous reasons why God would never answer these prayers.  “I’m not worthy.  I’m really not worthy.  God doesn’t answer prayers like these for people like me.  Why should he?”  These reasons (and I have more) sound a lot like “The Jewish Messiah isn’t about to grant the request of a Canaanite woman, is he?”  But he did.  

The point is that neither an unanswered prayer nor what looks like a humiliating refusal are the same thing as a final “no.”  Jesus used his delays to draw out further expressions of the woman’s faith.  That faith was in her all the time, but had Jesus responded quickly, none of us would have seen it and we might never know.  

Let’s be the kind of people who hang on like the devil – or better, like this Canaanite woman – with whatever faith we have and then even more.  Sometimes faith grows in its praying, its asking, humility and continuous kneeling before God.  Sometimes God’s answers come only after long delays.  A paltry, weak and sickly faith can be satisfied with quick answers, and then it may mislead us into thinking such faith is great.  In fact, great faith, like this woman’s, may be the faith that keeps asking without any answer in sight.

Satisfied in Christ – Matthew 14:1-21

This chapter starts with two feasts and leads naturally to a discussion of several kinds of satisfaction.  The first feast is the birthday party of Herod the tetrarch.  The second is the feeding of the five thousand by Jesus.

The daughter of Herodias is both a niece to Herod and his stepdaughter.  Josephus tells us that her name is Salome. At the feast held for Herod’s birthday, “the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod” (v.6).  There is nothing in the text that absolutely assures us this dance and/or the way Salome “pleased” Herod was utterly sensuous, erotic or otherwise unsavory.  From what we know of the times, the culture and the Herods, however, it is understandable that this is how interpreters have often understood the scene.

I have no desire to dig into any of that, but the available literature is plentiful.  You are welcome to track it down for yourself.  Or just look at our own times, culture and public figures to compare, in which case Herod might not look so bad.  Let’s give the tetrarch and his guests an undeserved benefit of the doubt and imagine that Herod was pleased in a completely wholesome way.  His satisfaction was of the innocent entertainment variety.  It was a great show and Salome deserved some applause for a job well done.  This kind of satisfaction never lasts.  We want the next show, the next thrill, the next laugh or the next diversion.  There is nothing wrong with it, but does have serious limitations.

An uglier form of satisfaction comes when Herod offers Salome “whatever she might ask” (v.7).  Heeding her mother’s counsel, she says, “Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter” (v.8).  Herodias is training the girl to walk in her vengeful, merciless footsteps – and Herod complies.  Her thirst for blood is satisfied, but some forms of satisfaction are simply wrong.  John was the messenger to Herod and Herodias that their forbidden relationship (the brother and sister-in-law divorced their spouses to marry each other) was wrong.  They killed the messenger to block out the message.  Alas, every part of this series of satisfied desires is misguided.

On to the feeding of the five thousand, or far more when we count the women and children.  We might think more in terms of a sellout crowd in an NBA or NHL-sized arena.  The crowd was hungry, Jesus feeds them and there are twelve baskets full of leftovers.  The key point for us is “And they all ate and were satisfied” (v.20).  Jesus meets the need of the weary crowd and they all feel like they just finished Thanksgiving dinner.

if we stopped right there we would already have learned something helpful.  Jesus is willing and able to meet our needs.  He does not consider them trivial or choose to ignore them.  Many of our desires are good and helpful.  We need food to survive.  This desire ought to be satisfied.

But there is more.  When John tells the same story, he adds considerable dialog as a followup.  There, in John 6:35, Jesus says, “Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  This is the ultimate satisfaction. 

Putting our faith and trust in Christ fulfills a desire that we may not even want to acknowledge.  We can satisfy ourselves on entertainment and when the satisfaction wanes, we can do it over and over again.  We can allow our selfish, dark and harmful desires to consume us.  If we satisfy this inner Herod or Herodias, no good will ever come of it and never has.  Some desires deserve to go unmet.  Still, there are natural, healthy desires that inform us of our basic needs.  Jesus is happy to meet these, but they are not the whole story of our existence.

C. S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We were made for an unfallen, eternal world that is free from corruption.  The problem is that we have corrupted this world and sentenced ourselves to death in the process.  We have taken the beauty that God gave us and ruined it beyond anything we can repair. This is not one category of problem like crime or climate change.  There is no cause to support that will solve this one.  We can only admit our need and let Christ satisfy it.  He alone is able.  When we do so we will find that world for which we were made.  Everything else finds its place only when we let Christ have his place first.

John Piper has put it like this, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  He is right.  Let’s determine not to let ourselves be satisfied with anything less.  We need to prioritize our desires properly and, as citizens of heaven, glorify the God who made us.  We can only be fully and forever satisfied in Christ.