By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 23, 2022
Luke 18:9–14 (ESV)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
As I have read through the gospel of Luke the past few weeks. God has been revealing things that I have been blind to for many years. I have grown used to scripture. This does not mean that I have grown tired but that I have become comfortable. I like this comfortable image, because this is one of the most powerful images there is.
My grandparents were and are some of my favorite people on earth. I have mentioned them often, and there are not many days where I reminisce on who and what my grandmother was. My grandfather with his quick wit and song is still living and he has been such a foundational influence in my life that I really do not know how I will react when God calls him home. My grandparents are my comfort. They are that little sanctuary in this crazy world, a touch stone, where I can either remember or visit and just know that things will be ok.
If you ask me about my grandparents, I will describe them as saints because I truly believe that they are that caliber of person, but I am aware of their faults and the trials they went through. They were born during the depression when both lived on farms in dry land Kansas. Their families survived one of the greatest agricultural economic disasters in our nation’s history, and they emerged from that trial not broken but stronger. When my grandfather was coming of age, World War two was being fought. He had to live with the risk of being drafted into that war, he had to struggle with his own peace testimony since he grew up among Friends, and he had to think about the farm. My great grandfather had a son and a daughter. My great aunt’s husband ran half of the family farm and my grandfather the rest, with the help of my great grandfather. Since the farm itself was under the ownership of my great-grandfather my great uncle was drafted into the navy, but as the only son of a farm owner my grandfather was not drafted to the war. This might seem like a praise to the Lord, but there were struggles on the home front during the war also. It was not easy to run a farm during a period of rationing. Luckily, they were prepared for this.
You see each trial we face strengthens us and prepares us for what life will bring us in the future. My great-grandfather worked on the farm throughout the great depression. He learned how to survive, and he had ingenuity. He took those skills with him and during the war they were able to work around the various struggles they faced so that they could produce what was needed.
The lifestyle of those that live on a farm is interesting. It is raw, so to speak. Farmers often live on the edge of success and poverty. Every little thing within the global economy seems to affect those that produce the raw materials that feed the world. When the price of natural gas and oil rise it affects the farmer. When the dollar loses value in relation to other currencies it significantly affects the farmer. It affects them because there is so little margin in agriculture. I think this is why Jesus uses farmers in the parables. Little things affect them more. And in most societies, farmers are a predominate demographic in their population.
I got a bit off topic, but there really is a point to this. The farm is my place of comfort. It’s my touch point. And this is largely due to my grandparents. In many ways I do not remember the negative things about my grandparents. I only see the good, and often I will paint over the negative and make it seem as if it is good. I would watch my grandparents interact at the table and listen to them argue about things. The funniest was always when my grandpa would point randomly in a direction, and my grandmother would grab what was necessary while complaining about how she could not possibly know what he needed if he did not talk. And yet she always handed him the exact thing he wanted. And his response was always, “Thank You.” With an occasional, “you seem to be pretty good at figuring it out.” That is the comfort that I am speaking about. Knowing someone to such a degree that a random pointing of a finger could prompt instant knowledge of what was needed even if a word was not spoken. It does not mean my grandparents were perfect. Clearly, they had issues in their relationship if my grandmother vocalized the need for greater communication.
We often get into this with scripture. We get so comfortable with it that we seemingly know exactly what it is saying. But then all at once something else is revealed to you. Like my grandpa pointing to ask for salt and instead receiving butter. In that moment words must be spoken.
This has been my experience over the past couple of weeks. I have read these verses many times. I have even presented messages on them but this time something else has been revealed. It is not that it is something new, it has always been there, just like the butter on my grandmother’s table has always been right next to the salt. But something in my life at this moment has changed. And if I continue with my grandparents’ table illustration, my grandfather had his knife in his hand instead of his fork, so with the given circumstances butter was the more appropriate response instead of salt.
What has changed in my life that has promoted the Spirit of God to show me an aspect of these stories that I have not seen before? I cannot fully tell you because I am not fully aware. But I feel as if the conflict in Ukraine, and various discussions that I have been involved in among the elders has promoted my spirit to be more open to a different perspective. I have gotten comfortable with scripture. At times I have felt as if I knew what it says, and the Spirit of God informed me that there is much to learn.
Jesus begins to teach once again, but today he does not address his disciples but those who have gotten comfortable within their understanding of faith. He addresses those who trust in themselves for their righteousness.
I stopped here in my personal contemplations this week. I sat in my traditional chair, and I just considered what this really meant. I pondered how it may appear. I wondered if I could even recognize it. This consideration has led me to some examination of myself in many ways.
Jeremiah 7:3-7 says:
3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
5 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
I found myself wondering if I was deceiving myself, am I getting comfortable in my own understanding and my own self. This is difficult for me. I do tend to speak about myself, and I am aware of this, but I do this for the simple fact that I know me, but have I spoken so much about myself that I have walked over a line.
In the passage from Jeremiah the prophet urges the followers of God to consider their faith. Are they worshiping a temple of stone or are they worshiping the true God? Are they exhibiting their faith in their devotion to the temple, or are they expressing their faith among those that bear the image of God? I think we as Evangelical Christians could learn something from the prophets.
Two men, Jesus says, went up into the temple to pray. When the temple was at its prime, there were two times devoted to corporate prayer, in the morning and in the afternoon, and then throughout the rest of the day individuals could come into certain sections to pray as individuals. We are not told if this is one of the corporate sessions of prayer or if these two men just happened to enter into the temple courts at the same time for their own personal reasons. I would venture to say that it was probably a dedicated time for the simple fact that one of the men was a Pharisee.
We tend to look at the Pharisees with contempt because of the various arguments that Jesus has with them during his parables. This is quite unfortunate because if we were to really consider the teachings that Jesus gave and compare them to rabbinical teaching of the pharisees of the same era we would find that in many ways they are quite similar. The Pharisees were good people. They were the kind of people we would want to be in our community. They showed up and they got things done when it came to religious activities. Sure, at times they might be a bit much on their piety, but you could count on them. They were devout people.
Jesus gives us a glimpse into this devotion, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” This is a good man. I like him, I would probably encourage the nominating committee to nominate him to be a chairman on one of our boards. He is not an extortioner, he is just, he is faithful to his wife, and he is not a tax collector. I think we can all agree that this is good.
But there is more. He fasts twice a week. This is a common practice among the Pharisees. Even the Jewish historian Josephus mentions the religious devotion of this sect of Judaism in his various histories. The Pharisees were known to have fasted on Monday and Thursday. The fact that we know the very days even two thousand years later surprises me, but there is a reason for this knowledge. Those days were the market days. Those were the days that the most people would be in the various cities throughout the nation buying and selling goods. And these men would go out into these communities publicizing their piety.
A fast is an important spiritual discipline, although it is not one that I personally frequent. The idea is that we abstain from food for a period of time and devote the time and the financial aspects of a meal to the glory of God. The point of the fast is not so much to show the world our devotion to God, but to bring ourselves into proper alignment with God. Most fasts are done to remind us of suffering. For the Christian most mandatory fasts within various denominations are during Lent where we focus on the temptation of Jesus, or during passion week when we focus on the suffering of Jesus. Among the first century Jewish community it might surprise you that there was only one mandatory fast each year, on the day of atonement. The Day of Atonement was basically a collective reset of the religious community. They would deny themselves of food during this time to remind them that their very life and existence is by the grace of God. Together they would feel the pangs of hunger as they watched their priest transfer all the sins of the community, not individual sins but the sins of the entire nation, onto a goat that was then chased out into wilderness. It is interesting that the sins were placed on the goat that was not ritualistically killed but on the one that survived. We often call this goat the scape goat, but it is the goat for Azazel. There is debate about this word. I could be a place or a personality. But I want us to consider the possibility of it being a personality. If Azazel is a personality, why would God command Israel to basically send a sacrifice to it?
This is where the place comes in. Azazel is a wilderness filled with rocky cliffs. It is the valley of the shadow of death. By transferring the inequity of the nation on this goat and sending it out into the wilderness God is visually showing them that they are denying themselves of pleasure and food to refocus their lives on the one true God and they are sending their sin back to the wilderness where it belongs, and that they will no longer worship this idol of sin and death, but will return to the one true God.
Long story short, a fast is not about gaining favor with God. A fast is returning our mind, our bodies, and our spirits back to God. It is about denying ourselves the pleasures of this world so that we can experience the world through the strength and power of God.
The pharisee in the story does not only fast, but he tithes. I do not speak much about this topic, but it is important. We often think of the tithe as being ten percent of our income, like a Godly income tax. This misses the point. The actual tithe was not on everything, this might surprise you, but it was only on firstling animals, cereal grains, wine, and oil. I hope when I read off that list you caught something. Of the items on that list, they were the staples of life and animals that qualify for sacrifice. The tithe is not about raising support of the meetinghouse, but it is about trust and faith. It is giving God a tenth of your life and your hope.
The daily wage in the first century was not based on currency, but on what it cost to eat. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he said give us this day our daily bread. This literally means that we will trust God for the necessities of survival. To give a tithe would basically mean that one day out of ten you would sacrifice your daily bread to God. One day out of ten. If we were to subtract out the Sabbath day that leaves 313 days of labor. That means within each year 31.3 days of bread the most basic necessities of life should be devoted to God. Basically, an entire month. But then there is a tenth of the firstling animals as well. This is the future hope. Wealth was often calculated on the flock not on currency. If you read through Genesis, we are told about the size of the patriarch’s flocks. I raised cattle as a child and when you raise cattle you are more excited for females than males because that is one more animal that will produce offspring the next year. The females of the flock are the hope of the future.
To give a tithe of the firstling of the flocks means that one tenth of those first-born animals were devoted to God. These were the ones that you would sacrifice for yourself, but these were the animals given to the temple for the sacrifices for the nation. One tenth of your future hope. How can we quantify this in our lives today? On average we work from the age of twenty-one to sixty-five, which is forty-four years. If we were to make $30,000 a year for that entire time that would be over $1 million. A tenth of our future hope is $100,000. I want us to really get a grasp on what a tithe is. If we were to give a tenth of the daily bread it would mean one month of wage, and a tenth of our future hope. At $30,000 a year that would not be $3000 but $4772. I did this weird math for a reason. It is not about the money. The pharisee in the story was saying he gave a tithe of everything which meant he gave a tenth on all income not just his daily bread and future hope. He went above and beyond. But he missed the point, the tithe is about faith. It is about hope. It is about trusting that God will provide for our daily bread even if we are willing to give him over a month’s worth of that bread each year. The question is do we have that amount of faith? Do we trust that God will provide?
There is a second man in the story, a tax collector. No one likes tax collectors. Even if we support the idea of paying taxes to a civil government, not one of us is yearning for a tax audit. We do not seek this out because it is an invasion of our privacy, it questions our integrity, and it threatens our future. The tax collector is a reminder that we have obligations and responsibilities thrust upon us that we cannot control. It is a reminder of the potential of human corruption and injustice. I am often accused of being idealistic. I truly believe with the right encouragement and proper communication people would willingly take care of their own communities. I believe this because I have faith. That there is a necessity for a tax collector shows me that we live in a broken world, because we must use the threat of force for people to provide for their community.
Yes, I think it is important that we are a bit uncomfortable with my words, because this is why Jesus spoke these things. The Pharisee despised the tax collector but why, it is because the tax collector is a visual reminder that the world is not what it should be. The pharisee speaks to God about his personal greatness, and the tax collector beats his breast and pleas to God to be merciful to me, a sinner. But a sinner may not be the best rendering of the word. Some scholars believe that it should be translated not a sinner but the sinner. The tax collector embodies our sin.
We are often unwilling to step up and live in faith and because of this other have stepped in to take up the slack where we have failed. I am not saying that we should not pay taxes, but I am say that the fact that we need to pay taxes is a testimony to us all that we have failed. We have let people slip through the cracks, we have treated others with injustice, we are focused on ourselves instead of encouraging those within our community. We should be beating our breast because our nation needs a tax collector because it means that we have neglected justice, we have oppressed the sojourner, we have allowed the fatherless and the widows to go hungry, we have shed innocent blood and chased after gods to our own harm. We should be beating our breasts, because we have used the name or our lord in vain.
This parable is layered it is not only about prayer, but it is also about temptation and complacency. We are tempted to believe that we have no sin. We are tempted to believe that we are better than those around us because I have not personally, intentionally, caused harm. Have we trusted in ourselves? Have we looked at or treated others with contempt? Have we compared ourselves with others and said that we are righteous or good?
In my favorite book, The Brothers Karamazov, the holy man tells Alexei “There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”
I know that the quote is strange, but it is good. This is the tax collector in the story Jesus tells, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” The tax collector knows that he is the problem, he has failed to live up to God’s standard and he needs help. He recognizes that He is not righteous in himself and without divine intervention he will share with the corruption of mankind. Do we recognize this in ourselves?
I have sat in contemplation this week and I have struggled. I have struggled because so often we want to prove our own righteousness, but the reality is that we are the sinner. We are the reason that Jesus had to come from his throne and live among us. We are the reason that he had to suffer and die on a cross. We are the reason that he had to lay alone in the tomb. But we are also the reason he rose from the grave. He came because we are the sinner and we are guilty, and we are deceived. We have fallen short of God’s glory and his purpose. We have failed to make the world around us Eden, because we are distracted by the knowledge of good and evil. We try and we strive but so often we get caught in the traps of doing evil so that good can come of it. And the cycle continues. How will we break this cycle? God, be merciful to me, the sinner.
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 16, 2022
Luke 18:1–8 (ESV)
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This week like many this year, I have found myself engulfed in news about the conflict in Ukraine. I have commented about this many times, and I have even chided myself for being overly consumed with temporal affairs, but there is something about this particular conflict that has my mind in constant distraction. Most likely it is because it involves a nation and people I have personally visited, but it is deeper than that. Ukraine in many ways is like my home. God directed me to Ukraine, and it was in that country and among their people, that God soften my heart and turned my attention to my true vocation. God called me to ministry in Ukraine. Without that nation, without the people of Ukraine I would not be standing here today.
But there is more to this. I love the people of Ukraine, but I also have a great affinity for the people of Russia. I grew up in the last years of the cold war, so I is difficult for me to say things like that, but it is true. I often find myself listening to Russian folk music while I am wondering the stores at work. I have read Tolstoy and other classic Russian authors, and two of my favorite novels were written by Russians. This conflict. This war has opened my eyes to the stark realities of war in a way that has not happened to me before. I see the humanity of both sides. I see them not as enemies but as two nations of people that have significantly contributed to my life. And I see them dehumanizing each other. I see the injustice of invasion, and the criminal brutality that can easily be perpetrated to those around us when we disregard the reality of the image of God that each person bears.
I have been and always will be opposed to war. This does not mean that I disrespect those that have served in the military, nor does it mean I am naive of the reality nations face. I am aware that there are times where conflict appears inevitable, this does not make it right. I believe it grieves the heart of God when those created in His image neglect and mistreat others created in the same image.
I know that I am not alone. Nearly every day this week I have watched the news surrounding this conflict and I have listened to people from Ukraine and Russia speak about what is going on in their countries and it breaks my heart. There is one man named Konstantine who left his home and his family, a man who is about my age left his home and his family at his own wife’s request. Because they did not want him to be mobilized to fight in this war. This man was an executive in a firm that builds power stations throughout the world and his company allowed him to transfer to a different office outside of Russia, but shortly after he left his home his company closed. This man left home, left his family, his country and now he has lost his career. Every day he gets on YouTube, and he speaks about what is going on in his community, but this week this man had a heavy heart. He speaks out against the injustice he sees; he opens his streams to the public to answer questions that people might ask, and he lets us on the outside see what life in his country looks like. The most interesting thing about this man though is that at the end of each of his daily streams he prays. He prays for the people of Ukraine, he prays for the leaders of his nation, he prays for peace, and he prays for anyone that asks for prayer throughout his broadcast. He is not a pastor or a priest. He is not evangelical or protestant, but he is Russian Orthodox, he admits that he does not know the answers nor the words to say but he prays daily.
This week I watched this man nearly break. He has spent the past year speaking about life in his country before the conflict started, he streamed as he was in shock as the war began. He put himself at risk speaking against the military operation in a public format and when the mobilization began, he left all that he had so that he would not participate in something he believed was wrong. The injustice of war has nearly taken everything but his life from him and when he listened to the nuclear threats being given, I watched as he nearly gave up. Yet he prayed. He asked God for direction, and the very next day he got on his stream just as he nearly gave up speaking out against the conflict, and he proclaimed his faith in God once again. Because the next morning thousands of people wrote to him and encouraged him. They asked him to continue to speak up and speak out for those within Russian influence that do not support the invasion and he made a public pledge that he would continue in the work, and that he would give a percentage of everything he earned to help the people his nation is injuring.
I know that is a long story, I know many of you may not want to hear my opinions about war and peace. I know that most people come to worship with a desire to get away from the hopelessness we seem to find all around us in this world. But I want us to see the world in the way that God see it.
For most of our lives we have regarded Russia and Ukraine as the same nation. They speak a similar language; they have a similar alphabet that probably all of us can recognize but cannot read. We have seen them not as two separate nations but as one. This is why this conflict is so important, they are two nations that have a similar history, but their journeys have taken them on different paths. This conflict should scare us, because it shows just how easily even those closest to us can become rivals. We cannot make the assumption that proximity means closeness, but that relationships take work. It does not matter if it is between nations, or your siblings at home. If we do not see the person next to us as a unique individual loved by God with their own passions and dreams, we will miss out on something spectacular. True friendship, justice, hope, and relationships.
God created our world for a reason. I do not even want to attempt to say that I know for full reason that God created our world, but he had a reason and as I study and contemplate on what God has revealed to us in scripture and in nature, I believe that the reason is because He loves. He loves and out of that unquenchable love he created things to embody His love. I say this because that is what we do. We create and we partake in the things we love. We get involved in the things we love. And out of our love we participate in the ongoing creation, we participate in God’s love.
That is what I believe God’s purpose was for creation. And I will be the first to admit that I could be wrong, but I do not think I am. I believe that we are in this place at this time in history, within this community for a reason. We are here to let those around us know that God loves them and that they can join with God in that relationship. But somewhere along the line our first parents, and our ancestors got distracted from that of God, and began to focus on the things of humankind. We stepped out of the relationship with God, and instead of participating in God’s continuing creation of a community of love, we began developing systems and kingdoms of men.
This is the backdrop, or the scenery of today’s passage. It is a story that transpires in a broken community within a broken world. An injustice has occurred and those that seek justice are being neglected because the kingdoms of men are focused on other things. Jesus is aware of what he is saying. He is aware of what the disciples are hearing, and he is aware that many people have twisted these words so that we often miss the point of the parable. This is not a parable about begging God for the things we want, but it is a narrative of hope for the hopeless.
I say this because just prior to these verses Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, in contrast to the kingdoms of men. He spoke about how servants and masters relate to one another. He spoke about how we should use the things around us for mutual profit, but this is not always how things happen. Rarely does this occur. Jesus tells us in those moments don’t lose heart, and to always pray.
To explain what he means he used a story about a widow and a judge. Jesus says, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” It is important to understand what this means. This man is not religious, nor charitable. This means that there is no sense of honor or duty to a god or a nation, he only cares about himself and what those around him and his position can provide for him. Jesus continues, “And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.;”
The judge is a man that looks only to his own interests, and what those around him can do for him. The widow has nothing. She has no family; we know this because she is going to the judge. If she had family, her son, her brother, her son-in-law, or even an uncle or cousin would be going to speak for her. She does not have anyone or anything. The judge has many people that are contributing to his position and lifestyle and this woman has no one. And she speaks about her adversary.
When the term adversary is used it is usually in context to a mortal enemy. An adversary is a threat to our very existence. This woman is not upset about a parking ticket, but her very life and livelihood are threatened, meaning if the judge does not hear her case something dire will happen. Most likely she will be homeless and starve to death. But there is something that we often overlook. Jesus is not telling this story to everyone; he is speaking to his disciples. His disciples are religious people, and their first idea would be to take this to their synagogue because that is one of the reasons, they had synagogues. The synagogue was not just a place to worship, but it was a school, a library, a place of discourse and of justice. If you had a dispute with someone, you take it to the synagogue rulers, and they will assist you in working it out. But she does not take it to the synagogue, she goes to the judge. This means one of two things either she is not a righteous person herself, or she has already taken it to the synagogue rulers, and they did nothing to help so her last resort is to take her case to court.
For a while the judge refused her request. This refusal even though they have a temporal indicator “a while”, the meaning of the phrase is that her case was perpetually place at the end of the docket. The judge had no intention of making a ruling. Yet she kept coming. We are not told how many times, but it was enough that it caused the judge to reflect on the situation. “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”
This judge knows that he is selfish. He knows that there is not a bone in his body that would not exploit a situation for personal gain if he was given half a chance. He does not fear God, nor respect men. He is corrupt to the core, yet he knows something. He knows that this woman, this widow, has been treated with injustice. He knows that if the truth were to come out, and the truth would eventually come out, it would cause a scandal. And he knew that the only reason that nothing had happened yet is only because the corruption within their system has gotten so deep that it would topple the entire system. When the judge said, “So that she will not beat me down.” The term literally means blacken my eyes or face. It is a phrase that comes from the sport of boxing, and in this sense, it means that if he knows that if he does not address her case, it will cause his own social and political downfall.
This is serious, all injustice is serious. When we do not respect and honor the image of God in those around us, even if they do not agree with us, we not only disrespect them, but we also disrespect ourselves and our God. The judge in the story does not care about God. We know that he does not even really care about others, but he does care about himself. And he knows that if this woman continues to show up at his gate demanding justice, eventually someone will ask her why she continues to waste her time. If she continues to show up, eventually those who caused the problem will also show up, pushing him to bury it deeper and to cover it up. If she continued to keep showing up questions would be asked that no one wants to be asked, so out of self-preservation this judge will hear her case.
Jesus tells us to “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.” Jesus in the past few chapters has told us repeatedly to listen or consider things that are unrighteous. This does not sit well with me. I want to be righteous not unrighteous. I want to bring honor and glory to God. I do not want to be a schemer or conspirator. Yet Jesus is telling us to consider the reality within these unrighteous acts. When the shrewd manager plotted with the debtors against the master, he in his selfishness actually provided a way for God to gain glory, because he acted in a manner that benefited the community and not just himself. When Jesus spoke of the rich man and Lazarus, he spoke about using what we have available to us now, to help, not just to get out of hell but because the suffering we assist in alleviating or perpetuating on earth today can have eternal consequences. Today he wants us to hear the unrighteous judge. He is not telling us to resemble the judge just as we are not supposed to be just like the shrewd manager. He is telling us to listen and to understand. The reason the judge is willing to provide justice to the widow is because justice will eventually come one way or another.
“And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” Jesus here is asking a rhetorical question. The answer is yes, of course God will give justice to his people. Justice is part of his character. That is the whole point of the vast majority of the Old Testament is to create a people and a nation of justice so that the light of justice will shine out into all the nations of the world and attract them to the one true God. Yet where is justice?
How often are we asked, or do we ask about these sorts of things? If there is a god, and if God is good why does he let bad things happen to good people? I have asked this question. I still ask this question at times. I would love to say that I have an unshakable faith in God, but the reality is that what I know about and of God is pretty shallow to the depths of who God truly is. That is probably why science interests me so much, the more answers we find reveals more questions which causes us to dig deeper or as CS Lewis explains in his Narnia series, “Further in and Farther up”. We have questions and we will always have questions. God does not get nervous about our questions, but we do. And that is what Jesus wants us to hear. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? The real question is why do we allow bad things to happen to good people? Why did we allow slavery? Why do we allow war? Why do we allow poverty? Why do we allow injustice to happen in our world? Jesus opens God up to this question because he says, “I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” That one word speedily causes a great deal of harm to our mind and spirit.
Speedily comes from the Greek phrase “en takos”. I don’t usually say the Greek words but this one is fun. Since it sounds like tacos, and I like tacos. But it means quickly, without delay, or suddenly, or unexpectedly. That is how we translate it at least, but there is another sense of the phrase that we can miss which is surely or certainly. God is certainly just, and justice will prevail. Period. If this is true, why don’t we see it? John Woolman spent his entire life in colonial America even before the Revolutionary War was fought seeking to end the slave trade. In his mind this was an unjust practice. His career was to write deeds and wills and he lost a great deal of business because he would not write a will unless slaves were given their freedom. John Woolman traveled to England to protest the slave trade and died in England without any significant change occurring and yet he was sure that this injustice would end. When it comes to changing deeply rooted or entrenched injustice, God may delay from our perspective but that does not mean God is not at work. God is working within the hearts and the minds of his people. We are persistently praying and seeking justice and then we will eventually see things change seemingly all at once. But it begins when one person takes a stand. It grows when we listen and hear and join. It continues to grow and expand until those that benefit from the injustice fear that they will have blackened eyes unless they do something to appease the growing movement. Which brings us to the last part of verse 8, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
In what ways are you, are we, working with God to overcome obstacles and injustice? Are we allowing God to lead us to the answers or are we sitting back idle and indifferent? Are we participating in the problem or the solution? The widow is beating down the judge, her persistence threatens to expose the judge as being the spineless and corrupt person he truly is, someone that only cares about himself and would do anything and ruin anyone’s life if it benefited him. Is that the kind of world we want? Is that the world that God commissioned us to participate in creating?
Hear the widow and hear the judge. Hear the Ukrainians and the Russian. Hear the women in Iran and the women in America. Hear the CEO’s and hear labor. Hear them and listen and participate in the persistent prayer of justice. Don’t lose heart and pray. Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
To help support the personal ministry of JWQuaker (Jared Warner) online and in the community click to donate.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 2, 2022
Luke 17:5–10 (ESV)
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”
Today we listen to one of the hardest parables Jesus gives. The parable of the unworthy servant. This parable is difficult because it seems to go against so much of our ideas about God.
I have been a pastor for twenty years. I just realized this as I was studying. Twenty years. You might think that after that amount of time I would not be surprised about what I read in scripture, but I am every single day I open my bible. I am surprised because I am always learning. I am always growing. The moment we stop learning, the moment we say we know all we need to know is the moment we stop growing. And in that moment, when growth ceases, atrophy begins to set in. And when our spiritual life begins to atrophy, we die. We shrivel up and dry out. We were once grapes on a vine, but now we are little more than raisins. Raisins are nice for some people but they are nothing like a plump grape. Some might go as far as to say that they are nothing like the original fruit.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” There is sort of a transitional moment here. We know Jesus’s closest followers by two titles: disciples and apostles. We tend to use them interchangeably but there is a difference. A disciple is a student, or one who follows. When we regard those that are in a cooperate ministry with Jesus as disciples, Jesus is the one that is doing the work and everyone else is either assisting him directly or are just listening. An apostle is slightly different. To be an apostle you first need to be a disciple. You need to know the teachings of your rabbi, or his yoke. This is what Jesus is speaking about when he makes that famous statement that we all quote on our worst days: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV) This is his teaching, his manner of life, it is his lifestyle. This is the armor of God that Paul encourages us to put on, it is not armor but the yoke or the lifestyle of Christ.
Once a disciple has put on the yoke of a rabbi, they conform to the teachings and the directions of the rabbi. They follow his pathway and walk in his way. While in the yoke you are walking side by side with the teacher. Eventually as you have walked as a disciple, as you have grown into the yoke of the rabbi’s teaching you are then sent out to take that teaching to others. This is an apostle. The sent ones, the envoy or representative of the rabbi. Today we begin to see a movement from disciple to apostle. At the beginning of this chapter Luke writes, “And he said to his disciples, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.’” Jesus says this to his disciples.
That is a heavy burden. What happened to the whole my yoke is easy stuff? Well, a yoke is still a yoke. One does not wear a yoke unless there is a reason. Jesus is showing them the seriousness of this lifestyle. He is showing them that to follow him, to be his disciple is difficult. It is difficult because a disciple of Jesus is more than a disciple, but apostles. In verse five, “The apostles said to the Lord,” do you see the transition. Do you feel the burden being transferred.
We go into this teaching right after the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, so I want to make sure we have the proper context because so often these verses are used improperly. Remember last week I mentioned that the rich man was not sinful because he was rich, but because he had the power to do something and yet did not use it to lift up the entire community, but instead he used his influence to continue to fund his own extravagance. Jesus follows this story with the teaching on temptations to sin. The temptation he is speaking of is the temptation of the rich. The temptation to neglect the community around you so that you can have more. And if we then train the little ones to live that same lifestyle, we have created something of horror, government.
I say this in jest, yes, but there is truth to it. We create a cycle of rich and poor, or exploiter and the exploited. And this cycle crushes those within. We might think that it only crushes the poor, but we would be wrong. Just look at history. Every tyrant that exploits his/her people live in fear of the people they rule. They are all crushed and that is why the millstone analogy is so fitting. But when we are tempted to live the lifestyle of rich and poor, those with power and those without, we perpetuate this system. These are the governments or the kingdoms of men. Crushing force used against crushing force so that we can use crushing force some more. This is why I say all war is inhumane, it is because it shows the horror of governments. And yes, I do think some governments are better than others, but all kingdoms of men are based on those that have and those that have not. They are filled with people that will use their power and influence to gain more at the expense of others. And this is the temptation that Jesus is warning us about. We were called to something different. We were called to break the crushing cycle of retribution and exploitation. We are called to forgive.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” notice again, they are no longer disciples but apostles. Jesus had just told them to pay attention to themselves, because they are being sent out into the world to break the cycles of exploitive power. And they look at themselves and they each see where they are weak. Remember these are people that believe that Jesus is going to be the king, the Messiah that will restore Israel to its greatest glory. They want to be the wielders of power. Some even sent their mother plea for the best seats in this emerging power structure. The desire to exert power over others is alluring. The apostles recognized that they had these powerful desires, so they ask that Jesus would increase their faith.
What are they asking or what are they saying? We are your apostles, if you increase our faith, we could use the power of men better than all the others. Give us more and we will break the cycles. Increase our abilities and we will overcome the world.
Jesus says to them, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
This is a sad parable. So often we look at this from the perspective of increase. If we just had the faith of a mustard seed, we could be healed. If only you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could have wealth. If only you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could have everything your heart desired. Increase our faith!
This is not what Jesus is saying. He says, “if you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea. And it would obey you.” The other gospel accounts have similar statements about faith but Luke’s is different. In other discussions about faith like a mustard seed a mountain is being moved but in Luke it’s a mulberry tree. In the other accounts we are led to believe that with just a little faith, the impossible can be done. They are filled with hope that if we trust Jesus even the most immovable objects could be brought low. But Luke speaks of a tree being uprooted.
Why a tree and what does this have to do with faith? I come from an agricultural background so of course the mention of plants piques my interest. A mulberry tree, some would say that Jesus is speaking of a sycamore or a fig tree, but from my study I think mulberry is proper. But this tree is a weed. It is an invasive species that the Hebrew people had laws or teachings about. You are not to allow this type of tree to grow within seventy-five feet of a cistern. Why? Because this tree has deep roots. The roots will break into the cistern and it will deplete your water supply. I grew up on a dry land farm in Kansas so this is important to me. In arid farming water is more important than gold. You will adjust your practices to make sure you keep the maximum amount of water stored in the soils so that the crops can use it. Trees as beautiful as they are, are a plague to crops and to range lands.
I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and during my childhood there was a massive fire that went through Yellowstone National Park, and forest fires were of great interest to our nation. We had ad campaigns with Smoky the Bear telling us that only you can prevent forest fires. And this raised our awareness to the dangers of uncontained fires within a forest. But this campaign had a consequence that many do not recognize, it caused us to focus on forests too much and we neglected other ecosystems. Trees growing in an area with lower water availability are environmentally devastating. A tree will suck the water out of the soil causing the area surrounding it unable to support further growth. We often think it is only the shade that prevents growth but there is more to it. We love trees, and even I love trees, but when we allow trees to grow in Kansas or in other areas that were naturally plains, we cause water shortages. These shortages are becoming more apparent over the recent years.
The Hebrew people understood that certain trees caused greater problems. And the mulberry tree was one such tree. The problem with trees like this, is that they are aggressive. They want to grow, if you look out in our own church yard you will see evidence of this. We recently cut down two trees in front of our building and from the roots every week saplings are attempting to grow. Hundreds of them trying to grow and establish themselves. Once a tree starts, more will emerge. And once they take hold, they are difficult to eliminate. Smoky Bear told us, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” but the range management researchers at Kansas State had their own campaign to support the systematic burning of grasslands, Blazey the Bison says only you can prevent forests.
Jesus directs the apostles’ attention to this invasive species, this mulberry tree. Once it gets established it will continually seek to grow. It will continually seek to leech the soil of the necessary water and nutrients until it leaves the community arid and depleted of everything of value. Only you can prevent forests.
The apostles say to Jesus increase our faith, and he is telling them you are already infected. The tree is already growing and you are powerless to prevent it. The corruption of power has already taken root and is sucking the water from your cisterns, and you have accepted it. It is not about increasing our faith, but that we are not even in the right place. We want the increase; we are currently Lazarus but we want to be the rich man. We want to switch the balance of power to back the current poor instead of the current rich. But we fail to recognize that if the system does not change all that does is start the cycle anew, only we are the rich that are exploiting the poor.
This rightfully shocks the apostles. They thought that Jesus was on their side. They thought that the whole reason for the Messiah was to restore Israel to a seat of power. We often get trapped in that trap as well. We like to think that God is indebted to us. We do good works, so we should be repaid. We twist the teaching of Jesus when he says store up treasures in heaven, and we believe that we can command God to release those storehouses to bless us here on earth. But that mindset is sin, it misses the mark.
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping seep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” Jesus reminds them of life. We live within the systems of men. We are currently under these systems, and we must work within those systems. They lived in a system of masters and servants. The servants do the work in the fields and they come in from the field and they prepare the table for the landowner. They have a duty that they must fulfill or trouble will occur.
“Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?” The answer is no because they do what is expected of them. If they refused to do what is expected they will be punished, but we should not expect paise for meeting the expectations. A student that usually gets c’s on their report card that continues to achieve a c average is not going to get special recognition. But what if they get an A instead? And what happens if the student that usually gets A’s suddenly brings home a C? Expectations are all around us, and I admit that these expectations often annoy me. I work hard for what I have, and when I cannot afford to buy something for my son, it really annoys me when he complains. Is it not enough that I have met the expectations? The reality is that we do not get praised for what we are supposed to do.
“So you also,” Jesus continues, “when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Jesus is telling us something profound in this parable. We have a great challenge before us. We have mulberry trees sucking the water out of our cisterns. We are constantly attempting to pull the weeds, to trim back the brush, and to clear the fields. We are struggling hard to do what is right in the eyes of God and of men. We are working and working. But often we get distracted. We feel as if we are being exploited, we feel poor and we want to be rich.
We want to be the ones that call the shots, we want to have the power. We cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” We want to be plump grapes, but often we are dried up raisins. Increase we say. But are we living in faith? Are we walking within the yoke of Christ? The temptation of power is all around us, some of us might wield some of that power within the systems of men. But how are we using that power? Are we perpetuating the crushing cycles of the kingdoms of men, or are we breaking those cycles? The mustard seeds of faith cannot take root while the mulberry trees are depleting the soils. Repent. We want increase but before we can obtain that we first must do our duty.
God created our first parents and placed them in the Garden, and he commanded them to go into the world and spread that garden. But in our desire of greater knowledge, we listened to the deceiver instead of God, and in our desire of knowledge of good and evil we brought death into the world. Our duty remains, we are still called to spread the influence of God throughout the world. We want recognition for this, but we are doing our duty. Does God honor us when we participate with him in this ministry, yes. He gives us life through Jesus. He grafts us into the vine once again and we can again produce grapes instead of something dry and shriveled. We are restored to our place, but that does not mean we have the right to take on the role of the exploiters. That is contrary to the will of God, and that is sin. We are simply called to do our duty. We are called to become people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is our duty and that is our glory. Serve God first and afterward you will eat and drink. Afterward we will share in the feast of the lamb.
We are servants yes. We are called from the beginning of time to participate in God’s creation to extend the borders of Eden throughout the earth. But we are more than mere servants, we are Friends because we know what our master is doing. We have knowledge of his plans and we are called to participate and reason with him as we go out into the world to perform the duties, he has entrusted to us. We have honor only when we stay connected to him. The moment we begin to think too highly of ourselves we begin to walk away from him. That is why we as Friends sit in silence, so that we can commune and communicate with God. We read the scriptures, we discuss and we study, we serve and we minister, but we must constantly return and know that He is God and we are servants. And in the silence, we allow God to remove the Mulberry trees and to break the millstones that hang around our necks. We sit in the silence not because we have the strength in ourselves to do our duty but because we need him to restore what the weeds have diminished. The only way we can have increase in our faith is when we return to him. When we repent and acknowledge that he is God and submit to his leadership in all that we do.
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
To help support the personal ministry of JWQuaker (Jared Warner) online and in the community click to donate.