Do we make the truth plain to understand? The Bible passage appointed for this week is the story of the Sadducees’ question to Jesus about the resurrection. The Sadducees only believed in the first five books of the Bible and did not believe in any form of resurrection as, they felt, it wasn’t found in the teaching of Moses. Therefore, their question to Jesus about the resurrection wasn’t a real question. Rather, it was an attempt to trap Jesus and ridicule the concept of any theology of resurrection. Jesus’ reply is masterful. Firstly, he points out that they had completely misinterpreted what resurrection is and, secondly, he explains how Moses himself believed in resurrection by what he wrote in Exodus – one of the first five books of the Bible! What do we draw from this passage? Yes, it underlines the reality of the resurrection that the risen will be like angels who are different from mortal humans, but there is more. Jesus had the gift of answering questions in a plain and understandable way. This is why other religious onlookers commented, “Well said, Teacher!” For us, the challenge is to do the same.
Does knowing Jesus transform our lives? The Bible reading assigned to this week is the story of Zacchaeus. Jericho was a very prosperous town where the Romans would have been able to levy a considerable amount of taxes. Zacchaeus was good at his job of tax collector and so had amassed a considerable sum of money for himself. Yet, he was not happy. He was reaching out for God. When he heard Jesus was coming by, he courageously made his way to see him. As a hated servant of Rome, he would have been punched and kicked while he was in the Jewish crowd and the crowd would have mocked him for not being tall enough to see. None of this deterred Zacchaeus who resolved to climb a fig-mulberry tree. But perhaps the most significant thing about this story is the change wrought in Zacchaeus after meeting his new best friend, Jesus. He decided to give half his goods to the poor (a 50% tithe) and to repay any he had wronged four times over. This was way over what was legally necessary and demonstrated that he had been genuinely transformed by the kindness of Jesus. How much more should we, who now know the depth of Jesus’ love for us, be equally transformed?
The Bible passage assigned for this week looks, once again, at prayer. It is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went into the Temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like others because he didn’t sin like other people, and, unlike many others, he fasted and gave a tenth of all his earnings to God. In contrast, the tax collector stood far-off with his eyes down, beat his chest and cried, “O God be merciful to me a sinner.” Which of these types of prayer did Jesus commend? The problem with the Pharisee was that he wasn’t really praying. He simply went to the Temple to tell God how good he was. Prayer requires at least three things. Firstly, humility. You cannot be proud when praying. Secondly, you cannot despise your fellow men and women when praying. Finally, prayer is not about us setting ourselves against others but rather setting ourselves on our knees before God. Although we may think that we are very righteous people, when set against the perfect standard in Jesus, we all fall short (Pharisees, tax collectors and everyone). For all these reasons, Jesus commended the prayer from the tax collector rather than the Pharisee.
What should our prayer life look like? Of course, there are many dimensions to this question, but the Bible urges us to pray big, to pray expectantly and to pray persistently. This week, the appointed reading is the story of the persistent widow. The widow came appealing for justice against someone who harmed her. Jewish judges, or magistrates, at the time were notorious for taking bribes. We are told that this particular magistrate was a godless man and we can infer that he too would be prone to bribes. In a patriarchal society this widow would have had no resources. She could not get justice by paying a bribe, but she did have one weapon and she used this one weapon relentlessly. She had the weapon of persistence. Eventually the magistrate gives in to her frequent visits and requests, and grants her justice. Clearly God is not a godless judge who is prone to bribes, but Jesus makes the point quite simply that if this corrupt magistrate gives the woman what she asks for, how much more will He, our loving Heavenly Father grant us our requests too. Pray big, pray expectantly AND pray persistently.
Is a sin something that we do wrong? In the Bible passage this week, Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man. What had the rich man done wrong? There is no indication that he was violent; no indication that he was a thief or dishonest. He did not even try to forcibly remove Lazarus from the gate to his house but, rather, seemed happy for Lazarus to receive the scraps from his table. Yet the rich man ends up in hell. Why? The problem with the rich man was not so much what he did, but rather what he didn’t do. He lived in the lap of luxury while the world around him was in poverty. People were starving and were in pain and yet he did nothing about it. He didn’t even seem to notice that Lazarus existed. Surely, on a few occasions at least, he could have invited Lazarus and others to dine with him. After all, he ate exotic foods every day of his life while Lazarus couldn’t even fend off the dogs who licked his sores. As always, we need to engage with this story and put ourselves into it. In this country we live an opulent lifestyle compared with most in the world. We are all probably behaving more like the rich man than we care to admit. Our sin is not that we have done wrong in the eyes of the law but rather that we have not done enough in the light of this passage.
Should we ever use worldly values in dealing with others? The Bible passage this week is the story that Jesus told of the shrewd manager. This is one of the most difficult passages to understand in the whole of the New Testament. The reason is that all the actors in the story are dishonest. Moreover, the owner commends the manager for being dishonest! Perhaps the owner is not meant to be a figure representing God, but this is unlikely when seen in the context of all the other parables of Jesus. For example, the owner in the parable of the vineyard. What then is the main purpose of Jesus telling this parable? I think it is this. To repeatedly reject all worldly values is not always very efficient and it is often not wise. Elsewhere in scripture Jesus admonishes us to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves”. God is sovereign over all things and calls us sometimes to embrace the values of the world in furthering His kingdom. After all, some of the greatest hymns of the church were theological words put to well-known secular tunes. Seen in this light, the words of Jesus in the parable of the shrewd manager begin to make sense: “I tell you, use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. In this way, your generosity stores up a reward for you in heaven.”