Archive for October, 2012

Being Pharisaical About Being Pharisaical

The other day, I came across an experiment.  It was conducted by a Christian guy named Timothy Kurek who, by his own admission, wanted to “shock the Pharisee out of himself.”  He had been raised with a quintessentially fundamentalist pedigree, even attending Jerry Falwell’s famed Liberty University as a college student.  But something in his fundamentalist upbringing proved profoundly unsettling to him.  So he left everything he had known and feigned coming out of the closet as a gay man to his friends and family in an effort to see how his Christian friends would respond to him.  Some were loving.  Others, sadly, but predictably, skewered him.[1]

As I learned about his experiment, I came to appreciate his moving and sometimes heart-rending experience.  What I found somewhat troubling, however, was his characterization of the Pharisees.  Tim spoke many of times of his “inner Pharisee” – this voice deep inside his soul full of accusations and vitriol.  By the end of his journey, TIm went from having an inner Pharisee to calling himself a “recovering Pharisee.”  Part of this journey seems to have included a radical change concerning his conception of sin.  He is not nearly so comfortable calling things that have been traditionally called sins, “sins.”  After all, this is what Pharisees do.  They talk way too much about sin.  And he doesn’t want to be like them.

This past weekend at Concordia, we talked about Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  The Pharisee, in Jesus’ telling, represents everything we have come to hate about these religious elites.  He comes across as arrogant, judgmental, and outright smarmy in the prayer he offers on the steps of the Jerusalem temple:  “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12).  This guy’s bluster is palpable.  Yuck.

Did I mention the irony is also deep?  Our reflexive response to this parable all too often sounds something like this:  “God, I thank You that I am not like other religious hypocrites – Pharisees, Sadducees, creationists – or even like those unenlightened, bigoted fundies who attend Liberty University.  I judge not and am smart enough to realize that my Christian witness to the world has to be nuanced and Huffington Post appropriate.”

Somehow, I’m not sure this is what Jesus intended for us to get out of this parable.

The problem with the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was not that he was religiously conservative, nor was it that he was concerned with sinfulness.  Both of those things are fine and, in many instances, even desirable.  The problem was that this Pharisee trusted in the wrong righteousness – his own.  Luke’s setup of Jesus’ parable makes this clear enough:  “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 12:9).

Sadly, many people see the road to killing their inner Pharisee as one paved by downplaying certain sins, thereby demonstrating themselves in-tune and in-touch with our culture’s zeitgeist.  But the road to killing our inner Pharisee cannot be paved in this way.  Indeed, Jesus Himself was quite comfortable with much of what the Pharisees said about sin and, many times, thought they did not understand sin deeply enough.  Just read the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or His discussion on human sexuality in Matthew 19:1-12 to see how seriously Jesus took sin.  Killing our inner Pharisee is not about redefining sin, but about killing sin by the cross.

So let’s stop trying to slay Pharisees by diminishing sinfulness.  That’s simply swapping one form of Pharisee-ism for another.  It’s swapping a religious self-righteousness for a cultural self-righteousness.  And that simply will not do.  For we do not need self-righteousness, we need Jesus’ righteousness.  Only His righteousness can cure a Pharisee and save a sinner.

Even a Pharisee and sinner like me.

[1] To learn more of Tim’s story, see Url Scaramanga, “Ur Video:  Straight Christian Lives as Gay Man,” (10.19.12) and “Timothy Kurek, Straight Christian Man, ‘Comes Out’ And Pretends To Be Gay For A Year,” The Huffington Post (10.13.12).

October 29, 2012 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Eat Up!

Brad Pitt 2In the 2001 remake of the famed heist film, Ocean’s 11, I found my favorite character to be Rusty Ryan, played by Brad Pitt.  Do I like him because he has the raw street smarts to pull off a $150 million heist at three Las Vegas Casinos simultaneously?  Nope.  Do I like him because he is able to coolly keep his partner, played by George Clooney, in check when as he plans this job only to impress his ex-wife?  Not really.  The reason I like Brad Pitt is because, in almost every scene, Brad Pitt is found chowing down on some piece of junk food.  Indeed, this turned into an intentional gag, as Pitt later himself admitted: “I started eating, and couldn’t stop. I don’t know what happened. It’s just the idea that you never have time to sit down and have a meal while you’re trying to pull off this heist, so my character is grabbing food all the time.”  Now there’s a man after my own heart.  He starts eating and he can’t stop.  I know the feeling.

In Luke 14, Jesus seems to be always eating.  The chapter opens:  “One Sabbath, Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee” (verse 1).  From there, the food motif continues.  Jesus tells a parable:  “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited” (verse 8).  He then follows up this food-based parable with another meal metaphor:  “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid” (verse 12).  What is Jesus’ obsession with food?  Is this some kind of intentional gag?

It is indeed intentional, but it is certainly no gag.  The majority of people in the Ancient Near East subsided on next to nothing.  That is, rather than having a super-abundance of food, they lived on scarcity.  One famine, one drought, or one natural disaster could kill hundreds of thousands of people because they had few reserves in place to stymie a crisis.  Thus, the Old Testament prophets would often promise a day when people would no longer have to contend with these restricted resources.  They would speak of a day of feasting.  The prophet Isaiah writes, for instance, “The LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6).  The Psalmist promises likewise:  “Those that be planted in the house of the LORD shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” (Psalm 92:13-14).  In our day, a promise of fatness is hardly desirable.  But in the first century, when food was scarce, a promise of fatness was a promise of provision.  It was a promise of a lavish feast.

When Jesus speaks of several feasts in Luke 14, He is saying:  “I am the fulfillment of God’s provisional promises.  With Me, God’s feast has come!”  This is why Jesus continues with yet another parable on food:

A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.” Still another said, “I just got married, so I can’t come.” (verses 16-20)

It is important to understand that the excuses these guests offer as to why they cannot attend this king’s feast are offensive and disingenuous.  To turn down any invitation to share in a meal, much less to share in a lavish feast such as this one, would have been unthinkable in that day.  But this is what these ungrateful invitees do.  Thus, the king responds by ordering his servant: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” (verse 21).  This king, one way or another, will have guests at his feast.  And these marginalized people will certainly not turn down the king’s invitation.  And indeed they don’t.  They come to the king’s feast.  But even after they come, the servant returns to his king and says, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.” (verses 21-22).

I love these words.  Even after the poor, the crippled, the blind, and lame fill the king’s banquet hall, there is still room.  There is still room for more feasters.  There is still room for more banqueters.  There is still room.

The king in the parable, of course, is Jesus Himself.  And the invitees to Jesus’ banquet are you and me.  We are invited to share in Jesus’ feast of salvation.  And here’s the good news:   There is still room.  There is still room enough for you to share in God’s salvation.  There is still room enough for you to share in God’s grace.  There is still room enough for you to share in God’s forgiveness.  There is still room enough for you.  So come to Jesus’ feast and share in His goodness.  After all, there is still room enough at His table…just for you.

October 22, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Kicking Back

They’re doing terribly this year.  My fantasy football team, that is.  Last weekend, my quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, scored an underwhelming grand total of fourteen points.  My wide receivers are putting more points on the board than he is.  To add insult to injury, the other day, I caught a few minutes of a game on ESPN Classic when Roethlisberger was still in college playing for Miami University in 2003.  I wish he played now the way he played then.

Most people know that I am a football fan.  There is nothing like kicking back on a Sunday afternoon taking in an NFL game or two, dozing in an out of consciousness, especially since my Sunday mornings, as a pastor, are generally action-packed!  And of course, I love watching my beloved Longhorns take on their toughest rivals.  The pageantry and suspense of college football is unlike anything else.

I’m not the only one who loves a good football game.  The NFL’s popularity has been rising steadily and startlingly over the years, this year reaching an all time high of 59 percent of Americans who say that they follow professional football according to an annual Harris Poll.[1]

As a football fan, I would be the first to say that there’s nothing wrong with following the game.  I would also add that there’s nothing wrong with all sorts of other things people do to kick back and relax – from golfing to finding your favorite movie on Netflix to fishing to surfing the internet.  And yet, if these are the only ways we spend our leisure time, we are cheating ourselves out of something transcendent.

The Lutheran theologian Gene Edward Veith wrote an article recently titled, “The Purpose of Work.”  In it, he noted a disturbing trend in the way Americans view their leisure time:

In our culture today…most people probably do not use their leisure to contemplate the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Our leisure is filled with more entertainment than contemplation.[2]

Veith’s last line is key.  When we find leisure only in what entertains us – be that a football game or a golf outing or a movie or a fishing expedition or a favorite internet site – we miss the more profound blessings that leisure has to offer.  For a bit of contemplation – on family, on work, on friends, and, most importantly, on God – can yield key and transformative insights for life and engender a thankful heart for all the blessings God has given.  But first, we need to take time away from being entertained to think and to thank God.

The Bible’s portrait of leisure can guide our us on our journey from liesure as solely entertainment to liesure that includes contemplation:

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.  On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

Notice that in Israel, the celebration of the Sabbath – a day to rest from the work of the week – is specifically tied to contemplation.  The Israelites are to remember their slavery in Egypt and how God brought them out.  For Israel, leisure was not just time to be entertained, it was time to spend with God.

How do you spend the bulk of your leisure time?  Entertainment is good, but not when it comes at the expense of reflecting on your life and on your Lord.  After all, He is the One who gave you that leisure time in the first place.  As the Psalmist reminds us, “God gives rest to His loved ones” (Psalm 127:2).  Maybe you should use your leisure rest not just to be entertained, but to say “thank you” to God.

[1] Michael David Smith, “Poll finds NFL more popular than ever,” NBC Sports (10.6.2012).

[2] Gene Edward Veith, “The Purpose of Work,” The Gospel Coalition (10.7.2012).

October 15, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

They Need Someone To Tell Them – How About You?

This past weekend, we finished our series at Concordia titled “Heaven.”  For the final Sunday of this series, Pastor Tucker and I answered some of the most common questions people have about heaven, hell, and eternity.  One of the questions I tackled was, “What about people who have never heard about Jesus?  What happens to them?”  This question is not a new one.  Indeed, questions about how God can consign certain people in certain circumstances to hell or judge them in His wrath are as old as Scripture itself.  Already in Paul’s day, people were asking, “Why does God still blame us” (Romans 9:19)?  Some people cannot fathom a God who will call to account every sin in every situation.  Surely there are instances, these people clamor, where God will just let sin slide.  Surely God will not blame us for our sins – at least not all of them.

As I explained this past Sunday, the truth of God’s judgment is this:  God will hold someone accountable for every sin in every situation – either you or Jesus.  Those are the only two options.  There are no others.  Thus, one cannot be saved apart from Jesus even if one has never heard of Jesus.  For apart from Christ, you will be held accountable for your own sin in hell.

This being said, we also learn that God does not want to hold us accountable for our own sin in hell.  He does not want us to perish (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).  This is why the task of evangelism is of inestimable importance.  For it is through people preaching the Word to other people that God normally reaches out with His love in Christ.  As the apostle Paul says, “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the One they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them” (Romans 10:13-14)?  People need someone to tell them about Jesus so they have the opportunity to believe in Jesus!  This is where you come in.

The other day, I stumbled across an article by the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, Thom Rainer, titled, “Seven Common Comments Non-Christians Make about Christians.”[1]  The last of the seven comments jumped off my computer screen at me:  “I really would like to visit a church, but I’m not particularly comfortable going by myself. What is weird is that I am 32-years old, and I’ve never had a Christian invite me to church in my entire life.”  Here is a comment from a person who wants to learn more about Jesus – who wants to hear from His Word.  All he needs is an invitation to a place where that Word is preached…maybe your invitation.

Thom Rainer concludes:

Non-Christians want to interact with Christians…It’s time to stop believing the lies we have been told.  Jesus said it clearly: “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few.  Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Luke10:2).

Satan is the author of excuses.  There is no reason to wait to reach those who don’t know Jesus Christ.  We must go now.  The harvest is waiting.  And the Lord of the harvest has prepared the way.

I couldn’t agree more.

[1] Thom Rainer, “Seven Common Comments Non-Christians Make about Christians,” (9.15.2012).

October 8, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter To Jesus

Last week, I stumbled across a blog post by Matt Chambers that struck me:

Could you imagine what Jesus’ ministry would have looked like if after giving “The Sermon on the Mount” He immediately checked social media to see how many retweets He got, or if #beatitudes was trending?

Or, before riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, He sat down with His creative team to map out exactly how to create a moment people would remember for thousands of years. (#TriumphalEntry, anyone?)

I wonder what opinion polls would have looked like after the crucifixion…or a big throw down with Pharisees…or a mass healing session.  What if He healed certain people more than others because data showed healing someone with leprosy went viral (heh, viral) faster than healing the blind?[1]

As we enter into the home stretch of yet another presidential election, it’s important to value and pray for our leaders, for they are given to us by God as Romans 13:1 so aptly reminds us.   But it also doesn’t hurt to chuckle a little at the human avenues and inroads that our politicians regularly leverage to try to garner and sustain power – opinion polls being one of them.

I especially appreciate Matt’s reference to Jesus’ Triumphal Entry (cf. John 12:12-15) and trying “to create a moment people would remember for thousands of years.”  This year, both political parties tried – using plenty of opinion polls about their presidential candidates’ relative strengths and weaknesses – to do exactly that at their conventions.  Though only time will tell, I doubt memories from these conventions will last thousands of days, much less thousands of years.  Jesus, as Matt so wryly notes, took no opinion polls, yet Christians across the world still celebrate Palm Sunday to this day.  Apparently, Jesus can create a long-lasting moment without consulting polls on what people think of Him.

Currently, I am teaching a Bible study to a couple of different groups on the Old Testament book of Daniel.  In chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a dream where he sees a statue made of gold, silver, bronze, and iron mixed with clay.  Nebuchadnezzar knows his dream is of consequence, but his astrologers and soothsayers are not able to offer any interpretation of his dream.  But Daniel, a Hebrew exile to Babylon, can.  Daniel explains that the different materials in the statue represent different kingdoms – the gold being the Babylonian Kingdom, the silver being the Persian Kingdom, the bronze being the Kingdom of Alexander the Great, with the bronze and clay finally signifying the Roman Empire.  Most important to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, however, is what happens to all of these kingdoms:  “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44).

Human kingdoms, no matter how many opinion polls their leaders may consult, never manage to endure.  The Kingdom of God, ushered in by Jesus, crushes them all, itself enduring forever – even without the benefit of opinion polls.  In fact, it endures in spite of really bad opinion polls – opinion polls so poor, in fact, that they got Jesus nailed to a cross.

As Election Day draws near, we’ll watch kingdoms be built and coalitions of constituents be congealed.  But in the midst of all the political intrigue,  let’s not forget to which Kingdom we pledge our ultimate allegiance.  For that Kingdom has staying power that will last far beyond November 6.  That Kingdom will last forever.

[1] Matt Chambers, “First Church of Public Opinion,” (9.25.12).

October 1, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,061 other followers

%d bloggers like this: