Forgiveness by Faith

Readings in Luke Continued – No.32

Lk 7:48-50 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”  Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

We’ve said it a number of times before in these meditations and we’ll no doubt say it again, but there are times in Scripture when you wish more was said so that it was a lot clearer to us. As we read this account the woman says nothing. Everything attributed to her by Jesus is through her actions. She came, she wept, she wiped and she washed with perfume – but she doesn’t say anything. She is a known sinner in the town and Jesus now pronounces forgiveness for her. Just a minute, we say, doesn’t forgiveness come from God ONLY when there has been repentance? Yes, and so Jesus reads in her and in her actions, repentance. He even declares that it is her faith that has saved her. How come?

Go back a verse and you find Jesus explaining to Simon, summing up his chiding of Simon, following the little illustration of two debtors with, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much.” (v.47). Jesus, as we considered in the previous meditation, put a very favourable spin on her actions, he saw her actions in the best light possible. As we have previously considered her actions and considered the possibilities, we considered very human actions and responses which may well have started out with human reasoning and self-centred motivations, but we did also recognise that in Jesus’ presence her heart is broken or melted or won over and now Jesus interprets all she did in a good way.

The truth is, of course, that Jesus sees her heart. He knows what has been going on inside her and knows the transformation that has taken place. The only way that our interpretation of events could be wrong is if Jesus had previously met her, and spoke to her, so that her coming to the house was a response of repentance to his words – but there is no evidence that that happened.

Now, says Jesus, it is her faith that has saved her, so what signs are there of her faith. Well first of all there is the fact of her coming into the house and looking for Jesus. As we’ve noted previously this was quite a difficult thing for her to do. Something in her is stirring her to come and see Jesus. Jesus said elsewhere, “My Father is always at his work to this very day,” (Jn 5:17) and part of the Father’s ‘work’, I believe, is to speak to people. I am certain that God speaks to every person many times in their lives. Whether they hear and respond to Him is another matter, but Paul was to write, “faith comes from hearing the message,” (Rom 10:17) and so when there is faith, it is always responding to God’s message. Admittedly Paul was referring to the preached message in the context of what he was saying, but it is also true in respect of anything God whispers directly into our mind. The fact that the woman came looking for Jesus, is an indication that she is responding in faith to an inner prompting. But that isn’t enough.

She finds him, stays with him, and responds to him. As we’ve previously suggested, Jesus almost certainly would have acknowledged her in some way and that way indicated to her acceptance. It is that acceptance, we suggest, that breaks her heart and opens the floodgates of tears. Now we have suggested before that it is possible that she came in weeping out of anguish because of her life situation which was crushing her, but here we are now considering an alternative reason for her tears – they are tears of thankfulness – someone understands me, some knows me and accepts me. Her tears of anguish become tears of relief. When we come to see that for the first time it is a mighty liberating thing. Have you ever come to that realisation? If you have it will almost certainly have been accompanied by joy and by tears, or both. If you’ve never had that joy or those tears it is possible that you’ve never ‘seen it’ or realised it as a truth, and maybe you want to ask the Lord to reveal it to you.

If her tears are now tears in response to Jesus’ obvious acceptance of her, it is a response of faith that says, “Yes, he DOES accept me!” and that in itself is an act of faith. As she wipes his feet with her hair and then wipes perfume on them, these again can be seen as heart responses to Jesus. Yes, we have previously interpreted them as acts of embarrassment and appeasement, but Jesus interprets them as acts of faith, acts that, for whatever reason, want to please him. Her heart, in whatever way, is reaching out to Jesus, and when a person does that they let go their old life, and transfer their allegiance to Jesus, together with an allegiance to goodness and righteousness. For these reasons, Jesus looks into her and recognises genuine repentance and for that reason he pronounces forgiveness for her and declares that it is forgiveness that comes in response to her acts of faith.

We can never earn our forgiveness. We can only repent. We don’t deserve forgiveness, only Jesus has earned it: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” (Eph 1:7) It can only come to us because of what Jesus did on the Cross. As we respond to God’s drawing, as we respond to His prompting, and come in repentance, it opens the way for Him to declare the forgiveness we need. We haven’t earned it, we just come to receive it and we don’t come until we repent.

The coming is, in itself, an act of faith, and that is what the Lord looks for in us. The coming is followed by responses to Him that indicate our repentance, and that He also looks for. Jesus saw it in the woman, even though she never said a word. That isn’t to say that we are not to say a word. The words would follow with the woman. As Paul wrote: “if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” (Rom 10:9,10). Repentance involves confession and belief. For the woman it was ‘confession by deeds’ and Jesus was happy with that, for the time being at least! Hallelujah!

Signs of Love

Readings in Luke Continued – No.31

Lk 7:44-47 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

I want to suggest that there is a sign of love in this passage that is not obvious but crucial once we really start thinking about what was going on here. The obvious love is that which Jesus spoke about – “for she loved much”. Jesus is using her apparent love in direct comparison with Simon’s attitude. Simon had invited Jesus to dinner but had, according to customs of the time, given him the barest of considerations. Today, if we invited someone in at the end of a hot day, we might point them towards the bathroom and say, “Would you like to just freshen up?” In other words we would give them the opportunity to use our things to clean up and feel better. In their day, with dusty roads and sandals, an honoured guest would have their feet washed by the servants of the house; that was the barest minimum you would do for them. If you wanted to really bless them you would given them oil for their head, rather like we put things on our hair to tidy up. But Simon had done none of these things. He gave Jesus minimal hospitality, because he was really only inviting him in to find grounds to criticise him.

The apparent love that Jesus spoke about, contrasting Simon’s poor attitude was that of the woman. Remember we saw in earlier verses she was well known and had “lived a sinful life in that town,” (v.37), quite possibly a prostitute – but she had come seeking out Jesus. There would have been no other reason that she would enter this house of a Pharisee because, like her, he was probably well known in this small town, and she would have know that she was the very opposite of everything he stood for, and would have been the subject of his condemnation. She has obviously heard about Jesus and, it would appear, was sufficiently desperate that she didn’t mind what people thought or might say. No, she came looking for Jesus and when she found him, she stood behind him weeping.

Now we speculated before why she was crying. Was it that she was so desperate? Was it that when she found Jesus, he simply smiled up at her, a smile of acceptance that broke her heart? Was she overwhelmed by the sense of God’s presence and it was a beautiful, accepting presence, so that her heart was melted and she knew she was accepted. We don’t know, we just have to speculate because Luke doesn’t tell us. Whatever else, she felt secure by Jesus. Presumably he had acknowledged her presence in some way and so she remains with him and just weeps and then wipes his wet feet with her tears and then gently rubs perfume into them. Whatever she felt when she came in, whatever had been her motivation then, now it is love in the awareness of being accepted.

Isn’t one of the preliminary facets of love being accepted by the other person? When you meet another person, your relationship cannot develop unless they accept you, and indeed the more they get to know you, the relationship will only develop if you both accept each other as you are. For real love to develop there must first be complete acceptance of each other as we are.

So the obvious love is the woman’s love that Jesus speaks about, a love that has quickly developed and which flows from the way Jesus has just accepted her. John was later to write, “We love because he first loved us,” (1 Jn 4:19) which explains what went on here. The less obvious love, because it is not spoken about, is Jesus’ love of this woman, seen first in the way he accepts her ministrations, while knowing exactly who she is. But I think there is a second way that his love is demonstrated here: it is the way he interprets her actions. It isn’t just to make Simon feel bad, it is a genuine interpretation of her actions. He sees them in the best light possible. Love always looks for the best in a person and sees what they say and do in the best possible way. Yes, it is possible that the woman came in with mixed motives, possibly ready to pay Jesus for help, possibly not even sure why she was there, but the more she remains with him, the more her heart goes out to him as she senses the warmth of his acceptance. It doesn’t matter if she wept out of anguish, it doesn’t matter if she wiped his feet out of embarrassment, it doesn’t matter if she put on the perfume out of guilt, Jesus saw it all positively. It’s like he might have said, “I don’t mind why you did it all; I just take it as an expression of your growing love, and for that I am grateful.” That’s how love responds and that’s why Jesus spoke as he did here to Simon in our verses today. In today’s language we might say he was putting a positive spin on it, but then that’s what love does.

But we always say that we need to look at what Scripture says to us personally. What does this response of Jesus say to us? Well I find it a challenge. Do I look for the best in people? Do I look to see what they say and do in the best light? Do I accept people like Jesus did so that they feel secure with me, safe and able to be themselves? Am I there for the underdog who is condemned by the safe, secure and affluent part of society? Am I willing to be associated with them, even when everyone else is condemning them? Am I so concerned for their salvation that I am willing to risk my reputation to reach out to them with God’s love? These, surely, are the key issues that leap out of this account that Luke brings to us and these are issues that I must deal with in my life, if I am truly to be a disciple of Jesus. May it be so!

Cause for Love

Readings in Luke Continued – No.30

Lk 7:41,42 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Within the Christian life there are some things that are so obvious that you almost wonder why we can’t see them. Having been a Pastor for many years I know that the greatest thing that people struggle with is a sense of being unloved, and yet the very heart of the Christian faith is all about being loved by God. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn 3:16) There it is in one of the best known Gospel verses, and that is reflected in the New Testament Gospels and letters again and again, yet it seems that in the Christian life there is often uncertainty and doubt and wonderings about whether ‘God loves me’. One of my favourite verses is Paul’s “If God is for us, who can be against us?(Rom 8:31) because this is Paul’s rhetorical question that might be put, “With God for us, who can be against us?” God is FOR us! Everything about His activity in the Bible shows that, God is FOR ME. So why don’t we realise this? I suspect the answer is found in this little story that Jesus told Simon the Pharisee.

Remember, from the previous meditation, Simon had been looking down on this woman who was a sinner and who had come and wept over Jesus and then anointed his feet with perfume. Jesus presents this little scenario to make a point to Simon. It’s a very simple and obvious scene and Simon doesn’t have a problem seeing it: “Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.” (v.43) In fact you would have to be a bit dense not to see it.

Two debtors, one with a big debt and one with a little debt. When the debts are cancelled who is the more grateful? Obvious isn’t it? So why do we still feel unloved? The answer has got to be, surely, that we don’t appreciate the wonder of what has happened to us, the greatness of that for which we have been forgiven. If we did, then we would surely realise how much we have been loved?

Is it possible that we think our sin, and our old sinful life wasn’t very bad? Do we rationalize it and say, “Well I wasn’t a very bad person!” Yet somehow we came to a crisis and came to Christ in repentance and were ‘born again’. Somehow we realised that where we were wasn’t good and we needed God’s help and forgiveness, but perhaps we’ve never really realised the fullness of our plight. Can we consider that for a few minutes, so that perhaps we might become like the grateful, forgiven debtors – aware of how much has been done for us. Let’s remind ourselves of some basics.

We were sinners – it was part of our every-moment life, we couldn’t escape it. Our tendency was self-centredness and godlessness, and we constantly fell short of God’s standards (Rom 3:23). Moreover we were under the dominion of Satan, in the dominion of darkness (1 Jn 5:19, Col 1:13) and nothing we could do of ourselves could get us out of that. We were separated from God, (Eph 4:18) objects of God’s wrath (Eph 2:3), and sin working in us was bringing death (Rom 6:23). Indeed it is clear from Jesus’ teaching that our outcome was going to be hell, total separation from God in eternity. To summarise, we were lost, separated from God, bound in Sin, driven by Satan and condemned for eternity. THAT was our state, and that was the ‘debt’ that Jesus released us from.

But if it was left to the negative side, that would have been enough surely to stir gratefulness and love within us, but that is only one side of it. It isn’t that we have been merely forgiven our ‘debt, once the debt has been forgiven, we have received from God an incredible ‘bank account’ that provides for the rest of our lives. We have been forgiven and cleansed of our sin, the power of sin and of Satan has been broken, we have been adopted by God so that we can call ourselves children of God (1 Jn 3;1,2), and He has placed His Holy Spirit within us to be our source of contact with Him, that brings guidance, help, direction, wisdom, and assurance. But then we find that God has a purpose for our lives (Eph 2:10 ) and we now have received eternal life and have a place with Him in eternity as His children.

Now maybe you have never taken in the truths of these last two paragraphs and if that is so then I recommend you read and reread and take in the truths that are there and even ask the Lord to help those truths impact your heart so that you are never the same again! When we consider what we have been FREED FROM (our past lives and the judgement that hung over them) and FREED TO (our glorious eternity that starts now with Him) we can never say again, “I’m not sure if God loves me, because past, present and future have all been put right for us by what Jesus did on the Cross, by dying in our place to make us right with God. We are now inheritors, receivers of all the good Jesus has achieved.

When we truly receive and understand these things our lives will be transformed, and part of that transformation will be how we view other people. No more will we view others through the eyes of Simon the Pharisee, criticising and condemning, but realising that we had been just like them in reality (don’t be deceived by thinking that “my sins weren’t as bad as theirs” – all sins are the same in eternal effect as far as God is concerned!) we can have compassion and understanding and be ready to love and bring forgiveness. This is life-changing stuff, and if it isn’t, we just haven’t ‘seen it’. Perhaps we saw it in the past and have grown to take it for granted. If that is so, ask the Lord to bring the truth and the reality of these things to you afresh. When He has done that, you will live a life of gratefulness, thankfulness – and compassion. Be blessed!

Saints & Sinners

Readings in Luke Continued – No.29

Lk 7:36-38 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

One of the things that I have found, doing this series examining Luke’s contribution to the Gospel accounts, is that it has forced us to look more widely at just what went on in Jesus’ three years of ministry. John, you may remember, concluded his Gospel with, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.(Jn 21:25) In other words, so much was happening every day that it was almost impossible to keep track of what had been going on. The Gospel accounts are, in fact, just a tip of the iceberg of the things that Jesus did.

Now I say this because there can be some confusion that this account above is the same one that appears in Matt 26, Mark 14 or John 12, all involving a woman and expensive perfume. However, there are sufficient differences to suggest that this was a completely different incident. Yes, the name of the householder is Simon (v.40) and in Matthew’s account the householder is Simon, but that is where the similarity ends. This account is near or in Galilee while Matthew’s account is in the south in Judea. This Simon is a Pharisee, the other Simon is (or was) a leper. The reason for the woman using the oil or perfume was quite different. The one in Matthew was inadvertently anointing Jesus for death. This one has a different reason.

The big focus, it seems, in Luke’s account is the difference between the host-householder and the woman. Here in Luke, as we’ve already noted, Simon the householder is a Pharisee. He is part of that conservative group of Jewish believers who prided themselves in interpreting and keeping the Law of Moses. Virtually all encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, show the Pharisees as odds with Jesus. We wonder why, therefore, did this man invite Jesus to dinner? Was he simply interested in what he had heard about Jesus and wanted to find out more, or was he looking for an opportunity to find fault with Jesus? The latter seems more probable because, after the woman comes in and Jesus accepts her ministrations, Simon “said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (v.39). If you asked Simon to categorise the people in the room he would have put himself in the category of saint or godly believer, and the woman as a sinner. Jesus doesn’t have the same assessment as we’ll see in the next meditation.

For now we might wonder why Jesus went into this man’s house, almost certainly knowing that he was walking into the lion’s den as far as trouble was concerned. The answer to that must be that Jesus was never afraid of confrontation, and seems glad to take any and every opportunity to face up people with the truth. If Simon wants to bring him in to examine him, then the end result may be that Simon will end up examining himself! If you come full of criticism of Jesus, then you need to be warned; you are revealing your own heart and your own state and any criticism is likely to come back on you!

We need to consider this woman who comes in. We still appear to be in the town of Nain (7:11) and this is a woman “who had lived a sinful life in that town” and is obviously well known. Simon certainly knows about her and writes her off as a sinner. Jesus apparently doesn’t know her and simple accepts her – which Simon finds difficult. But then the truth is that Jesus does know each person and he would have been quite aware of the sort of person she was. As Jesus reclines on a low couch at a low table, as was the custom, his feet would protrude out behind him as he leaned towards the table, and the woman stood behind him weeping so that her tears dripped onto his feet. Suddenly aware of this she stoops and quickly seeks to wipe of her tears with her hair and then, perhaps to make up for this takes some of the perfume she has with her and pours it on his feet. We’ll see later how Jesus reinterprets what she does to cover any embarrassment she has. Luke, we have said many times in these studies, is a people-person and he is fascinated by people accounts. This three-sided account just has to be included!

Why was this woman weeping? Luke doesn’t tell us, for her misdemeanours aren’t the key issues here. Perhaps she has come to a crisis point in her life and in desperation she goes to this man she has heard so much about. Possibly she came with the alabaster box of perfume to pay him for his counsel because there is a hint in the description of her having lived “a sinful life”, that it was a life of immoral earnings and she expects to have to pay for whatever services she receives from this travelling preacher. Perhaps she just came in out of interest and the very presence of God in the room brings her to a place of conviction and she just breaks down, but Luke doesn’t tell us. That’s not the issue. The issue is how Jesus accepts her and Simon doesn’t. Simon sees a sinner, Jesus sees a potential saint! Pharisees condemned people who failed to live up to their high standards; Jesus recognised that people couldn’t live up to such standards and so accepted them as they were and let his love and acceptance transform them into saints.

So where do we fit in this three-sided incident? Do we come with a sense of failure, feeling we have to earn Jesus approval or pay for it in some act? Don’t try to earn it or pay for it. He gives it freely. Do we come with a sense of self-righteousness that condemns the sinners of the world? We need to see that Jesus comes to save sinners not condemn them. Or can we come like Jesus with loving acceptance that willingly sits with Pharisees and prostitutes alike? May it be so!

Power in Action

Readings in Luke Continued – No.28

Lk 7:14-17 Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

In our previous meditation we pondered on the imponderable, why some things happen to some people and not to others, and why God seems to turn up for some people and not for others. Over the years I have pondered another issue – why is it that God turns up in revival at certain times in history and brings utter transformation, but mostly doesn’t? My only conclusion, and it may only be very partial, is that even if He did keep on turning up in power, the sinfulness of mankind would still distort it or fail to appreciate it. I have travelled in parts of the world where revival has come and have been in villages where 100% of the village population were Christians, yet somehow there was almost a lethargy there that did not seem good. When I compare that with the reports from the underground church in China , struggling against fierce persecution, there is not the same vitality that is present when there is opposition, it seems. It appears that when God’s presence is constantly there, it needs less on our part and, this side of heaven, we do better when there is some opposition or God’s power is relatively limited. That may sound incredible to say, but that is how it seems in practical reality.

I say these things in the light of the miracle that we observe in today’s verses. Jesus, moved by the plight of this woman who has just lost the second important person in her life, steps up to the funeral procession and puts his hand on the coffin being carried. Those carrying it sense something is about to happen, so stop and Jesus calls to the dead young man to get up – and he does! Immediately he sits up (which supposes that the coffin was an open topped one) and starts talking. It is patently obvious that he is alive, and everyone sees it and comments upon it.

Now the point that comes to mind is that this is one of only three instances of those who Jesus raised from the dead, the others being Jairus’s daughter (Lk 8:40-56) and Lazarus (Jn 11:38-44). Why, with the power available to him, didn’t Jesus raise more people from the dead? The answer to that has to be, surely, that God allowed him, or guided him, to do these three for what have to be specific reasons that fitted the will of God. Now that may sound a bit bland but everything Jesus did, he did for a purpose – his Father’s purpose: “Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:19). The Father, in His wisdom, obviously sees that simply bringing lots of people back to life, i.e., extending their lives, does little good either for them or for others, but on rare occasions He does do it to reveal His power and, indeed, His compassion.

The Bible thus reveals to us a God who does have the power to bring back the dead, prevent people dying and healing them and utterly transforming lives physically, but He appears to do it sparingly most of the time. There are times and places where He comes in mighty power and healings etc. are seen in great abundance, but taking the world as a whole, they are relatively few. Does the Lord delight to bring healing? Yes, He clearly does, looking at the numbers of people who were healed by Jesus. Does He heal today? Yes, He clearly does. What seems to be a vital ingredient for this to happen? Well as John Wimber used to point out, faith was always present in one person at least in all the situations in the Bible where people were healed, but then faith is simply responding to what God says, and so in every case where healing occurred, and does occur, first of all there is God’s expression of His intent to heal. Our faith, our response to His words of prompting, give Him the space to do it.

Does Jesus raise people from the dead today? Yes, he does. I have heard of rare instances where I trust the integrity of the reporters. However, when we come to this subject, let’s be careful to check our hearts out, because such happenings reveal the state of our hearts. Those who are critical will criticise and say, “Well why doesn’t He do that all the time?” and will thus reveal the short-sightedness of their thinking. Those who are open-hearted to God will find themselves stirred by such events as in today’s verses and will ‘come running’, in their thinking at least, and will want to learn more of this one who can do such things. Those who are utterly given over to God will just praise and thank Him for every token of His goodness expressed in such instances as this.

After all Jesus didn’t have to raise us this young man. He just did it as a token of his Father’s love for the widow and her family. He obviously saw that here was a situation where ongoing life of this young man would truly benefit this family. That isn’t always so although, if it is our family, we will almost certainly think it would be. Why did God allow my loved one to die? I don’t know, but I just have to trust that when God weighed the alternatives He considered that in the long term this indeed was the best option. It may take us a long time to see that because in the immediate, grief blinds us to the bigger picture, and anyway it may take a long time to see the good outcomes. We may not see it even until we get to heaven and see the big picture through God’s eyes. In the meantime we would do well to join with Job who declared the classic phrase: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” (Job 1:21 ) Amen.

Compassion in Action

Readings in Luke Continued – No.27

Lk 7:11-13 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

To try to fathom out why God works in the way He does sometimes, seems an almost impossible task. To try to work out why the sin of this fallen world afflicts some and not others is, again, an impossible task. I take heart from the little incident in John 9:1-3: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Here were the disciples confronted by an effect of the fallen world in the form of this man born blind. They want to know why but Jesus refuses to blame the man’s parents and just says, “Let’s just take such things as opportunities for God to bless, and for God to be glorified.”

I say these things in the light of Luke’s account of this incident in the town of Nain in the southern half of Galilee. It is an account that none of the other Gospels mention, but it is obviously something that Luke heard about as he was researching for his Gospel and it clearly touched his heart. It is a simple account, of Jesus arriving at the town at the moment when a funeral procession comes out the city gates, presumably on the way to bury the body. Now, in the absence of any information to the contrary, we are going to have to assume that Jesus used what we now call a word of knowledge because he is moved by the circumstances here and no one seems to have told him what is going on – but it is very significant.

The body that is being taken for burial is of a son (child, or young man we don’t know) and, more than that, he is the only son of this family which makes it doubly hard. But it gets worse; this family has already lost the father. This family now only comprises one surviving member, the wife and mother who is now enduring her second funeral. But there is more. There is a large crowd with this woman. She is well known, popular. She is a good woman – but death takes no account of good people at times it seems.

It is these facts, we suggest, which moved Jesus to action. We are told, “his heart went out to her.” Again and again we find in the Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus was moved by ‘compassion’ (Mt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34). Luke uses the word compassion only once, in the parable of the prodigal son when the son comes back and we read, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son.” (Lk 15:20). It was compassion that moved the father in the story and compassion that moves The Father in respect of us. But here in our verses we have the same thing, compassion defined if you like – his heart went out to her.

We find in this, and in the other amazing verses about Jesus’ compassion, that we find ourselves with a God who is moved to action, not by logical deductions of the mind, but by emotions. God feels with us!

In the famous ‘shortest verse’ in John 11:35 when ‘Jesus wept‘ there is a sense in the original that this weeping was tinged with anger at the impact of sin, having taken his friend Lazarus prematurely. His tears were an acknowledgement of his feelings of anguish for this people and their loss because of the effects of sin in this fallen world. Could there have been another way, the Godhead would have surely thought of it, but free will was part of the design that made such things as ‘love’ meaningful, and the price was sin in the world and Calvary. Oh no, the Father doesn’t stand at a distance, He feels and He is moved.

Back prior to the Exodus we find the Lord speaking to Moses at the burning bush: “The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” Do you see that last part? God doesn’t only see and hear what goes on, He feels!

So here we have this account that moves Luke’s heart for he includes it when none of the others did. He’s a people person, we’ve said, and he’s moved by human drama and here is human drama at its best – or worst. It is a woman who has had the two men she loves snatched from her by death. Why didn’t Jesus save the husband as well, ask the unthinking sceptics? Because he wasn’t there and can’t be there (in human form) for every person. But he was here on this occasion and being God in human form, he can exercise his authority on the earth and bring back life – simply because he was moved by the situation. There is no wondering about why these tragedies had struck this family. There are no carping judgments about this family and ‘what they must have been up to to deserve this’!

No, the Son of God is simply moved by the woman’s plight and acts accordingly as we’ll see in the next meditation. He sees, he understands, he feels and he acts. You never have to twist God’s arm to understand your plight – He does! You’re not alone in your feelings – He feels with you. That is the wonder of the God with whom we have to do. This IS God. Yes, there are no doubt many other questions we could fire into discussions about evil in the world but they’re dealt with elsewhere. Here we simply pause and wonder at the fact that our Lord and Saviour feels for us and with us. Let’s be grateful.

Friends

Readings in Luke Continued – No.26

Lk 7:10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

I think there are times in the Christian life (if we are honest) when you hold your breath and wonder if you got it right as you wait to see an outcome. This particular account in the Gospels is one such case. There is an interesting divergence here between Luke and Matthew which we haven’t yet picked up. Just before this verse Luke records, “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel,” which referred to the centurion’s comments about authority which, in turn follows the words from the centurion about his unworthiness – except Luke tells us that both sets of words were actually spoken by friends who the centurion had sent to Jesus (v.6).

We have commented before on how Matthew tends to give abbreviated accounts and he doesn’t mention anyone else acting as the spokesman for the centurion. He has just reports, “a centurion came to him, asking for help.” (Mt 8:5) and the conversation appears to have been with the centurion – but that is just shorthand which is not uncommon in the Gospels. We need to understand in these situations that writers in Jesus’ day did not have the same cultural requirement to give specific accurate details as we would expect today (although our modern Press sometimes seem to exhibit the same characteristics as the culture of two thousand years ago!). Often we find generalities in one Gospel account and specifics in another. Thus it is in Matthew that we have the words attributed to the centurion – as in fact they were even in Luke, but where others transmit them – while Luke gives us the detail of how it actually came about.

So much for the differences between Matthew and Luke, but now we have to consider disparities within Luke’s text. We have, first of all, seen that Jewish elders came pleading on behalf of this man for healing but it seems fairly obvious that they didn’t quite convey what the centurion subsequently realised he wanted, because we read earlier in Luke’s account, “The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.(v.3) but then later seems to want to stop him coming. Now either that was how the centurion originally put it (and subsequently changed his mind), or it was how the elders perceived it, how they assumed it, and assumed that that was what he was asking for. It is only when you start looking in detail at the accounts that you begin to realise the workings of the human mind. Look again at the two possible scenarios that we have suggested.

First scenario: the centurion asked for Jesus to come and then realised as he thought about it, that actually he didn’t need Jesus to come; Jesus had the power and authority to speak just a word and it would be done. This is an interesting situation because I do believe that sometimes faith flows and grows once we have committed ourselves to a course of action, and not before. Jesus is obviously on his way for we read,”He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him….” (v.6). One way or another Jesus received the first message and started coming, but when the centurion looked out of his house and saw the crowd approaching, he then obviously asked some friends to go out and stop Jesus with the words he gives them. Perhaps he was not in full faith for ‘distance healing’ before, but he is now!

Second scenario: the centurion in conversation with his Jewish friends, elders of the town, mentions he wishes Jesus could heal his servant and they naturally assume he means he wants Jesus to come to the house – I mean, how else can he get healed??? The other thing about writing in those days was that it was a far more arduous task than today; they did not have the ease of a computer keyboard! Thus they would have been fairly basic in what they included, so we aren’t told if, in fact, the centurion then followed his friends out of the house and talked to Jesus face to face, but that seems unlikely as we are told in today’s verse, “Then the men who had been sent returned to the house,” but that could mean of course they went back while he stayed talking with Jesus. That is the frustration of the Gospels sometimes; they don’t tell us everything we’d like to know.

So here we have a situation with some very human dynamics in it – and Luke likes such things! That’s why we get the details he gives us. This is no ordinary centurion. This is a Roman with Jewish friends who are willing to help him, his own (presumably) Roman friends who are similarly willing to run errands for him – and he’s a man of faith with great understanding about Jesus. This story, perhaps more than most, reveals Luke the writer interested in people and with their interactions. The proof of the centurion’s assumptions about Jesus is confirmed – the friends go back to the house and the servant has completely recovered – simply from a word at a distance from Jesus.

This is a very human story, as simple as it is, and yet it is also a story about spiritual understanding and divine power. We must not let the two writers’ different approaches in recording the events, detract from the wonder of them. These are two men of authority coming together. One has human authority, but that is obviously limited when it comes to changing human bodies, and the other one is divine authority and, interestingly we see elsewhere in the Gospels, it is limited by human belief. Where a man of strong belief encounters the one with spiritual or divine authority, it makes space for the latter to move and bring healing. Because he never changes, is the limited amount of healing we tend to see today in the church down to our limited faith, I wonder? It’s a challenge.

Humility

Readings in Luke Continued – No.25

Lk 7:7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.

Just a few extra words. Just before the centurion says this we find Luke recording him saying, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” and Matthew records virtually the same thing. Both of them record this man’s humility but Luke having added earlier the facts that the Jews came on his behalf to Jesus, now adds in this simple sentence by way of explanation. It’s like the centurion says, this is why I didn’t come to you myself, because I don’t count myself worthy to come to you.

Now this is quite amazing because this is a centurion who is an officer of the Roman army and they are the rulers over this country – the Jews are subservient to them. You would expect it to be the other way round, the Roman not deigning to go to Jesus. Luke has obviously caught something when he has been collecting his materials for his Gospel. He caught the remarkable humility that there was in this man. The others hadn’t picked up on this but, as we’ve said previously a number of times, Luke is a doctor and doctors pick up on people. I wonder, would we have been a Matthew and given this man a reasonable but somewhat cursory coverage, or would we have been like Luke and picked up on the unusual nature of this man. Are we people watchers, do we take in what they are really like, because that is what comes out here in this simple verse.

Humility appeals to Jesus. It is the sign of a person who knows what they are really like. John the Baptist’s teaching and preaching brought people to their senses, made them face up to themselves. John made them aware of their moral failures, of their need to get right with God. Jesus then came to a prepared people with the offer of God’s love. This Roman is aware of spiritual realities. In what follows, he knows who Jesus is – a man with authority to change things. He recognises in Jesus authority over sickness in the same way he has authority over soldiers. He says a word and they jump. Jesus says a word and illness goes. This man has spiritual perception far greater than most of the Jews over whom he ruled. He realises that Jesus is someone special. Anyone less would not have this authority that Jesus has. This is spiritual authority and that is much, much greater than simple human authority which relies on human power or force to exercise it. No, Jesus has a power that cannot be explained humanly, a power to change human bodies. This Roman soldier recognises that here is someone far higher up the spiritual-social scale!

Young people speak of ‘blagging it’ meaning they bluff it out and get what they can by pushing their luck. This centurion doesn’t do that because he is aware of the realities of this situation. He may have the human authority but Jesus has the spiritual authority and you can’t make someone exercise authority; that’s the nature of it. It’s what the person who has it exercises – if they want! This man also recognises that in the authority that Jesus has is included knowledge, knowledge of the realities of a situation and of people. He knows he can’t bluster and throw his weight around with Jesus because Jesus will see right through him, right through his vulnerability, his weakness in concern for his servant. Indeed that concern for his servant indicates a compassionate heart and compassionate hearts aren’t brash, they are gentle. This man has an incredible awareness of the reality of who he is, of his situation, and of Jesus.

So what is humility? It is the awareness of the truth of the situation about ourselves. Humility sees me exactly as I am. It knows my faults and my weaknesses and therefore it doesn’t allow boasting. Yet, it will also see the reality of the good things about me and so it will not allow any false modesty. In Psalm 45, the writer, speaking about the Lord going out like a vanquishing king, says, “In your majesty ride forth victoriously in behalf of truth, humility and righteousness.” (Psa 45:4) Do you see that? Humility put on a par with truth and righteousness. It is important to the Lord because it is a sign of a person having a right assessment of himself in God’s world. Solomon wrote, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” (Prov 11:2) This right assessment of oneself brings wisdom with it. When you know yourself, you know what you should do, what you are capable of doing. But this can work both ways. James instructed, Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (Jas 3:13) Humility brings forth wisdom but it also comes from wisdom. The wise know their true position and are humble. Paul instructed, “think of yourself with sober judgment,” (Rom 12:3) which is the same thing.

Humility is therefore an important thing before God. Peter instructed, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (1 Pet 5:5,6). Proud people have an overblown view of themselves. A humble person knows who they are – rightly! God wants people who fit rightly in His world which means they know and understand who they are, how they fit in and how they stand before Him. The centurion was an excellent example of humility. We need to follow him.

Good Reputation

Readings in Luke Continued – No.24

Lk 7:3-5 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

Can we remind ourselves to start off why we are doing these particular meditations? Yes, they are meditations about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, but they focus on the parts of his Gospel that are unique to Luke. Within the Gospel there is material that is common to all three Synoptic Gospels indicating a common source, there is some common to Matthew only and some common to Mark only and some unique to Luke, and it is this latter material that we are focusing on. We are doing that because it brings an emphasis, a very human emphasis that perhaps only a doctor (which is what Luke was) would bring. That is especially true of our verses above. Luke picks up on the very human touches in the Gospel accounts.

Matthew is the only other one who records the incident with the centurion in Capernaum and it is clearly the same incident. But Matthew, we have noted previously, sometimes tends to be rather brief on descriptions and when it comes to this centurion he simply says, “When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.” (Mt 8:5) which is the gist of the opening words above, except Luke picks up from his sources something else, something quite endearing and which appeals to him and so he includes it. It is that this centurion who resides in Capernaum clearly has a good reputation in the eyes of the local Jews. He is on sufficiently good terms with the local Jewish elders that he asks them to go on his behalf, to appeal to Jesus on his behalf, and on the behalf of his servant.

In what follows it becomes obvious that there is both integrity and humility in this man. So why doesn’t he come himself straight away? We aren’t told directly but it appears clear that he doesn’t have a domineering attitude as a Roman, and recognises that when it comes to asking for healing it is not something you can demand. Moreover it may be that Jesus wouldn’t want to have any dealings with a Roman ‘oppressor’, so for this reason he uses his friendship with the Jewish elders and asks them to appeal to Jesus on his behalf. It is only when they have appealed to Jesus that the man comes himself and enters into dialogue with Jesus.

Now note that when these local Jewish leaders come to Jesus they don’t come half-heartedly on behalf of this Roman. No, they pleaded earnestly with Jesus to help this man. Now there is something important here that we could miss. These Jewish elders actually believed that Jesus could heal this servant. We usually tend to think that most of the Jewish leaders were against Jesus and didn’t believe in him. Well these leaders clearly did, otherwise they might have dissuaded their friend. No, they have heard about Jesus, perhaps seen him in action, and realise that he can help their Roman friend IF he wishes.

Now their approach has a certain Jewish legalism about it. Note what they say: “This man deserves to have you do this.” Well, no, nobody has earned the right to have Jesus heal them; he does it as an act of grace – always! We need to remember that when we are asking for healing for ourselves or for others. Jesus doesn’t heal us because we have earned it, but because HE has earned it on the Cross. All sickness is ultimately the result of sin in the world and Jesus has died to take out sin, our punishment and the effects of that sin. Thus he has earned the right to bring healing to us. We don’t deserve it and we can never earn it, but he gives it freely as an act of grace.

But they go on to give reasons for their thinking: “he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” Wow! This Roman has almost become a Jew it seems. He is not there as an oppressor, he is there as a friend. He is obviously a wealthy and influential man, this Roman centurion, and has paid for and directed the building of their local synagogue. No wonder they feel good about him. Now this man has certainly earned his reputation and that in itself is quite remarkable. He has come into a foreign culture and he has blessed the people he has found there. He has not imposed his own Roman ways on them but has enabled them to express their own ways more fully. This is a good man, an apparently righteous man – but he’s still a man with a need that is beyond him; he has a sick servant who he obviously cares for (another good aspect of this man’s life) but he doesn’t have the power to heal him. We may be good people, but we are still limited and need God’s help. Whoever we are, and however good we are, this still applies.

I wonder what sort of reputation we have? It worries me sometimes, the obvious lack of reputation that is there often is within the Christian community. Jesus taught, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven,” (Mt 5:16) which indicates that Jesus expects us to have a good reputation in the eyes of the world around us as we cact as salt and light. Are we gracious in the way we disagree with the world’s immorality? Have we learnt to speak about righteousness graciously, or do we upset those around us by our declarations of their sin? Do the good things we do soften the hearts of those around us? Are we seen as the best and most conscientious workers or students, or are we seen to be those who do the bare minimum and then scuttle away back to our Christian ghettos? I don’t want that to sound hard, but that is often how it appears and I know because that is how I used to be for much of my earlier working life. It was how we were taught – to come out from among the godless people around us, except that is not how Jesus was. He got in among them and acted as salt and light and blessed them and showed them his Father’s love.

Yes, there will always be those who are against us because we shine and show them up for what they are, and in their defensiveness they will be against us, but do we give them grounds to feel hostile? This centurion stands out as a foreigner who blessed the local population. Can we be the same and thus become a channel for God’s love which opens people up to receive Him for themselves?

Open Heartedness

Readings in Luke Continued – No.23

Lk 6:37 Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.

There is an approach to life that I can only describe as open-hearted. It describes a person who has an open heart towards other people, who is not petty, who is not vindictive, who is not demanding, who is not vengeful, who is not spiteful, who does not reject people or demean people but who has a welcoming, warm heart towards people. That, I believe, was Jesus’ heart. He was constantly looking for the good in people. Jesus had the ability to see past people’s facades, the masks they so often put on. He saw people’s hearts and he saw their potential, and he was looking to bring out the good in that potential. Jesus saw the downtrodden and saw past their poverty. Jesus saw the rich and affluent and saw past their bold splendour. He knew us as we are, and loved us.

Now I say all this because I believe that is what is behind these simple words spoken by Jesus as recorded by Luke. He starts with forgiveness. Forgiving is about releasing a person who has offended or abused you, from the punishment that is due them from God, and it is required when that person repents of what they have done. Forgiveness can only be declared when that other person has repented. We shouldn’t confuse this with having a right attitude towards our offender because Jesus instructed us to love our enemies and pray for those against us (Mt 5:44). Some Christians confuse the two things but we are told to forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3:13) and God never forgives until there has been repentance, but then He ALWAYS forgives. It is this latter part that we naturally struggle with. We hear people say, “I’ll NEVER forgive them.” Well, yes you will if they repent and ask your forgiveness, because then you find Jesus’ strong injunction applying: “if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Mt 6:15).

Vine’s dictionary states: “Human ‘forgiveness’ is to be strictly analogous to divine ‘forgiveness’. If certain conditions are fulfilled, there is no limit to Christ’s law of ‘forgiveness’. The conditions are repentance and confession.” Until our offender does actually repent, we are to hold a good and right attitude towards them, wanting God’s best for them always, but the moment they do repent we are duty bound to proclaim our forgiveness. God gives us the amazing privilege of declaring the will of heaven: you are forgiven. I forgive you. Now although many people will struggle with granting that forgiveness, the open-hearted person willingly grants it. They know that forgiveness declared will open the way for their offender to walk out in newness of life, free from the burden of the guilt. We proclaim their forgiveness because we know that when they have repented God has forgiven them. We are thus the bearers of good news. But we also forgive because we too have known the experience and we know the joy of being forgiven and want it for others.

Declaring forgiveness is a sign of a redeemed person, a person who knows what it is to be forgiven. Thus when we forgive we express our salvation and reinforce our salvation and continue the ongoing process of ‘being forgiven’ by the Father. Because we forgive as we are required to, we are not holding on to an unresolved issue that in itself needs forgiveness. If we withhold forgiveness we are ourselves now in a place of sin, acting spitefully and ungraciously, and forgiveness from heaven will be withheld from us until we come to the point of forgiving. As we forgive, so we are forgiven. Forgiveness declared by us is an expression of our own repentance and thus we also receive it.

But then there is the second expression of the open heart – giving. Most of us in this sinful world are takers, but open-hearted people are givers. Most in the world want to get; that is at the heart of materialism, that is behind the commandment not to covet. We want and want and want more. But then our hearts are changed and we are born again and suddenly we are filled with love and our desire is to bless others. We become givers, givers of love, givers of possessions, givers of time and energy. The Spirit of Jesus within wants to continue His work of bringing the love of God to people, to bless them. We come across a need and we give. The open-hearted person does not reason and rationalize and blame or speculate. The open-hearted person sees a need, feels compassion and gives.

But look at what happens in God’s kingdom. When we give, He gives back – in abundance! That’s what the verse implies: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” That says you’ll receive a lot. So whether it is time, energy, possessions or money, whatever form you use to give our God’s love, you will find He gives back. Selfless, open-hearted giving is the key. But actually the selfless, open-hearted giver doesn’t think about what they will get back. They are just aware of what they have already received and they give out of the abundance of that. It just happens that that abundance will be replenished whenever it is given away. How wonderful!