53. Talents

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 53.  The Talents 

Mt 25:14-15   Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

We come to what I have to confess is my favourite parable, for a slightly strange reason that I will share later. Notice the start word: “Again”. Jesus is continuing on picturing what it will be like at the End and I suppose it can be summarised as “An Accounting”. The thrust is in the punch lines at the end but to get there we have to go through what is a fairly lengthy but simple story.

Remember the context of pointing towards the end time: Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.” (v.14) That is the background scenario, in Part 1 of this parable, a property looked after by servants while the ‘master’ is away. In a sense Jesus is ‘away’ at the present time, as he reigns from heaven, seated at his Father’s right hand. He is ‘away’ and will come back at some point in the future; that is to be remembered at the heart of this parable.

However, before he goes the master entrusts each servant with a number of “talents of money”.  A talent would be the equivalent, I am told, of quite a lot of money. This is a rich master giving out generously. To one he gives five, to another two and to another just one, “each according to their ability” and then he went on his journey (v.15) The parable is about how each one used what they had and then the Master’s response when he returned.  The one who had five made five more, the one with two made two more but the one with just the one, “dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” (16-18).

Now Part 2 of the parable is of The End: After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.” (v.19) Each servant comes before the Master and accounts for what they have done with his money. (v.20) He praises the first one, “His master replied, `Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (v.21) A fulsome praise. The same response is given to the second man. (v.22,23)

Now the response of the third man is the thing that highlights this parable because I believe it portrays the response of so many Christians and needs addressing in these days. Indeed it may be one of the most significant things that limits the church today. So see his response: “Then the man who had received the one talent came. `Master,’ he said, `I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’” (v.24,25)

I will come back here in a moment, but notice the Master’s response. First of all the rebuke: “His master replied, `You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (v.26,27) IF, and it is an ‘if’, IF the servant believed what he said, then logically he ought to have done something with the money more than he did. Whether we respond to His love and generosity or we respond out of fear of the accounting, we NEED to be Doers, responders.

Second, observe the severity of his response: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (v.28-30) Note two actions and sandwiched between, a two-sided principle.

First action: According to this parable what has been entrusted to each of us in life, will be taken away at the End if we don’t use it wisely, i.e. living with a focus on the Father (v.28). Second action: the removal of that life will mean being cast away from God.  The Principles: 1. When you come to God He will give you His blessings and as you use that, He will give you more.  2. If you don’t come to Him you will have nothing and even that will be taken from you!

Now I need to clarify something. Earlier I said the last man often epitomized what appears to be the response of so many Christians today. Now this man in this parable ends up being cast away from God. Does that mean hell? No, I believe that means into a place of severe disciplining. I don’t believe people will lose their salvation because of their attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ but they will be disciplined, and that in this lifetime.

So what does having an attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ mean?  First of all, it is an attitude about God. Some people get locked up by the thought that God is a God of severe judgment who is to be feared but as one person on the Internet has noted, “Only about 60 verses in total in the Gospels might be construed as either directly or indirectly referring to hell” (1.58%) whereas “192 verses have Jesus referring to heaven, eternal life, or his coming kingdom” (5%). i.e. hardly any of the Gospels are taken up with the thought of what happens to sinners after death and at the End. The Gospels are Good News! It was good news for those who encountered Jesus and it is good news as far as far as our ultimate eternal life will be concerned.

I have previously recommended learning three sets of verses from Ezekiel in this respect and I do so again. They are: Ezek 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” and Ezek 18:31,32 “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” and Ezek 33:11 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  Our God is a God of grace and mercy!

But second, this attitude manifests itself in unbelief seen in passive Christianity that prefers to sit in the pews rather than risk stepping out in faith and maybe getting it wrong, and the ‘hard man’ mentality fears being slapped by this harsh holy God who cannot tolerate imperfection. Look again at Jesus meeting with the sinners! God loves His children stepping out in faith (and sometimes getting it not quite right!!!). He is NOT a hard man and He loves all of us, when we get it right and when we don’t. Aim to get it right, but risk His love!

45. The Vineyard Owner

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 45.  The Vineyard Owner

Mt 21:33,34  “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

Two parables about a vineyard owner. The first one, that we have just seen, focused on the employment strategy of the owner. This parable now confronts the Jews in the most specific way possible with their historical reputation and what they are about to do: it is all about the owner’s representatives, culminating in his son. The pattern or structure of Matthew in these chapters show Jesus in his final week before his death, teaching in the temple precincts there in Jerusalem, at the very heart of Judaism, and when we come to this particular parable, and what follows it, we find the most striking indictment possible of the Jews and of Judaism, it’s religious face. We need to look at the parable itself first, but then see it in the whole context of the Bible.

So, first, the parable itself.  Again, as with all of Jesus’ parables, the basic storyline is very simple and easy to understand. There is a vineyard owner. He builds up and creates a good vineyard. He rents out the vineyard to various farmers and then goes traveling. The rent he will charge will be a part of the harvest and so when harvest comes he sends his servants to collect his share. However, “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.” (v.35) i.e. three times he has tried to collect his legitimate return.

He perseveres: “Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.” (v.36) The tenants continue in their folly, because surely there is going to come some accounting but, no, they live for the moment and keep on killing his representatives. “Last of all, he sent his son to them. `They will respect my son,’ he said.” (v.37) His hope is that although they abused and killed his servants, surely they would not dare do that to his son. However, “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, `This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (v.38,39)

So there is the story and so Jesus turns to his listeners and asks, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (v.40) The fascinating thing about these parables, and Jesus involving the crowd, is that he doesn’t give them anywhere to go except to face the truth: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” (v.41) The answer is obvious and they give it. Any sensible person would agree with the outcome – there will be an accounting and these terrible tenants will get what they deserve. But he won’t leave his vineyard empty, he will rent it out to others who will pay up at harvest time.

Now Jesus is going to pile on another analogy on top of this parable but we’ll save that for the next study. Now we need to observe the bigger picture. We have said in previous studies that Jesus came to a prepared nation, a people who, in their heads at least, knew something of their history because they would have been taught it in the local Synagogue. This parable, perhaps more than any other, has an Old Testament parallel and it must be because of that that Jesus uses this picture.

Isaiah used exactly the same picture: “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.” (Isa 5:1,2) if you read on the Isaiah passage you will see that the Lord used that picture to complain that Israel only brought forth bad fruit (Isa 5:3-7) and because it did He would flatten it. Again, it was a most terrible indictment of Israel and one of which modern-day Israel would be aware. Now Jesus takes that same well-known picture and takes the emphasis away from the fruit to the servants the owner (God) had sent.

As the first Christian martyr, Stephen, finished his potted history of Israel he concluded with such scathing words he sounds more like an Old Testament prophet denouncing Israel: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:51-53) It is exactly the same denunciation that Jesus implies here in this parable, but which has now been fulfilled now he has himself been killed.

So here, in the temple precincts, right before the listening leaders, Jesus tells this terrible parable that faces Israel with its history of killing off God’s prophets, and prophesies that the Son also will be killed. And all this happened while the Jews were in fact plotting to kill Jesus (see Mt 12:14, 26:4, Mk 3:6, 11:18, Jn 11:53). This parable not only spoke of the past, it also genuinely prophesied the near future.

The tendency through history has been to use these events to condemn the Jews but the truth is that although they were God’s chosen people to display Him, they also displayed the inherent tendency of every single human being to Sin – to self-centred godlessness.  We are all alike; they just had the greatest chance to show it – and they did! This parable is not about a specific activity to do with the kingdom of God, it is all about the propensity – revealed through the Jews – that we all have in ourselves to be godless, to focus on our own wants and needs. If you struggle to face this awful truth, ask the Lord to open your eyes to see it, for once you do, you understand how essential the Cross was and how vital is our reliance today on the Holy Spirit. Dare to pray it.

43. Hiring Workers

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 43.  Hiring Workers

Mt 20:1,2   For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard

This is one of those parables that particularly seems to confuse people and raise questions, and yet it is remarkably simple in the basic story:  A landowner wants people to work in his vineyard and goes out at regular intervals throughout the day to recruit more workers and agrees to pay them all exactly the same amount, a single denarius, regardless of how long they will work. Now this is what confuses people for those employed early on only get a denarius for the whole day while those employed right at the end of the day and who appear to only work for an hour, get exactly the same, one denarius.  How unfair, people say, surely those who worked longer should be paid more! The main content of this fairly long story is found in verses 1 to 9 and then we find this complaint being made obvious: So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, `and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” (v.10-12)

Now Jesus has the owner responding, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v.13-15)

Now I think this is a classic case of misguidance by Jesus because although it is absolutely true, the bigger issue, which we all have to face is that every person contracts with the ‘owner’ (God) in a unique way. On his side He gives us His forgiveness; on our side, we have noted in previous studies, we have to come empty handed in complete surrender and for different people that will mean different things. For the child who takes Jesus ‘as their friend’ at five say, that surrender is childlike and simple and, at that point at least, costs little. For the criminal at thirty who comes to Christ and realises he has to confess all and make restoration, his throwing himself on Christ’s mercy may mean going to prison. Every person comes uniquely to Christ. Yes, the basics are the same – repentance, surrender, forgiveness, cleansing, empowering etc. – but what that means is different for every one of us. What I have to be forgiven is almost certainly different from what you have been forgiven, and the consequences of my salvation will be different from the consequences of yours.

So yes, then there is the whole matter of what God then makes us. Some people appear little gifted or appear to have little faith, while others appear to have amazing gifting and amazing faith. God knows exactly what we can take and use (and doesn’t give what would ruin us) and no amount of pleading will change it. We may demand, “I want to be an apostle!” but His response might be, “I haven’t given you the faith and wisdom for that because I know that in your case that sort of role would blow your head off with pride and end up destroying you.”

No, this parable is remarkable in the clarity of what it says when you come to look at it. Each employee is just grateful for being ‘employed’ and that’s it. They agreed to the payment, simply to have some work. Call it a contract if you like and they are bound by it. Perhaps a denarius was the going rate for a whole day’s work and thus every person employed as the day went on, was a greater and greater example of the owner’s generosity, just as he said. The truth is that God didn’t have to take us into His kingdom. It was only possible because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, and that was entirely initiated by Him and comes as a free gift to us. When we are forgiven, God could leave us exactly as we were (but forgiven) but He chose to give each of us His own Holy Spirit, His free power resource for every one of us. He needn’t have done that, but He did. It was pure grace, pure mercy. None of us ‘deserved’ it, but He gave us these things anyway. The ‘owner’ is ‘generous’.

It doesn’t matter if you came to the Lord when you were five, say sixty years ago, or only two years ago when you reached sixty. The whole package is there for both. Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages to both conversions. The one who came to Christ as a child has had a whole life to grow and develop in Christ and has this been kept free of the dark things of life, while the most recent convert might have gone through many bad things and be very badly scarred spiritually. However, on the other side of the coin, the one who came to Christ as a child, often feels they don’t know what it was like being forgiven big things while the recent convert is full of praise and thankfulness because they know the depths from which they have been saved. Yet, as both stand before the doors of heaven, they stand there in total equality. It doesn’t matter how long, humanly speaking, they have been in the kingdom, they are both children of God with a wonderful eternal inheritance to come.

But then Jesus concludes this passage with a bombshell: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (v.16) What! What does that mean? Jesus doesn’t explain but leaves us to meditate on it. OK, according to the story of this parable, those who were taken on first end up being grumpy, complaining and envious and think badly of the Owner. They are the ones with the least relationship with him. On the other hand, those who had been taken on last, thought this was going to be a day of poverty and yet found they were taken on and paid exactly the same as the earlier workers and they would be rejoicing wildly about their good fortune and feel really good about the Owner.

About the woman who poured scent over his feet, a woman clearly known as a sinner (Lk 7:39), Jesus said, “he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Lk 7:49) and that after he shared the Parable of the two men who owed money to a moneylender, one a lot, the other a little, and then the moneylender forgave them both and cancelled their debts (Lk 7:41,42) where Jesus asked the simple and obvious question, “which of them will love him more?” (v.42b) In my earlier illustration, the later convert (and bigger sinner) is last in arriving but first with gratefulness. It is a simple challenge to each of us who have known Him a long time, to seek understanding and thus ever be thankful. The moment you stop being thankful is the moment you lost sight of the wonder of your salvation.

Perhaps we should add that to that teaching of, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” the recognition that often the ‘first’ in the world’s eyes, the rich and famous, are often the last to turn to Christ, while the last, the poor and insignificant, are often the first to turn to Christ. It is an upside down world!

41. The Unforgiving Debtor

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 41.  The Unforgiving Debtor

Mt 18:23   Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

Context, you may have gathered through my many comments throughout these studies, we consider highly important, especially when the current verses start with a ‘Therefore’. That presupposes a logical flow, so what has gone before? Since our last study where Jesus sought to show that we are each very precious to God, he then taught how to resolve differences (v.15-17) to eventually re-establish unity so ultimately we do all we can to ensure none of our brothers or sisters are lost, and then a little on spoke about authority (v.18-20). These teachings led Peter to wonder about those who do offend, those who do threaten unity and harmony in the body: Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (v.21) to which Jesus then replied, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (v.22)

It is in the light of this that Jesus then tells this parable that is often referred to as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The account has three parts: first, how a master dealt with a debtor-servant (v.23-27), second, how that same servant then went and dealt with another debtor-servant (v.28-30) and third, the consequences of his behaviour (v.31-34). So let’s consider it part by part.

First Part: Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  “The servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,’ he begged, `and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”

The basic facts: a king holds an accounting. One particular servant owes him a lot but was unable to pay it off. As punishment and a means of settling it, the king ordered that he and his family be sold as slaves. The man begs for more time to pay and so the king, in pity, cancelled the debt completely and let him go.

Second Part: “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.”

The basic facts:  The first servant was owed some money, a small amount by comparison, by another servant who, when he failed to pay off his debt, and despite his pleas for patience, he had thrown into prison.

Third Part: “When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,’ he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

The basic facts: The King (or master) is told what had happened and calls the first servant in and confronts him with his actions and casts him into prison. His logic is very clear: he had forgiven the first servant so shouldn’t he have had mercy on his fellow servant.

Following this Jesus declares, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (v.35) The inference is obvious: God has forgiven us, so shouldn’t we forgive others?  Now the theology of forgiveness is slightly more complicated than this simple parable, for remember Jesus is making the point that when forgiveness is sought, it MUST be given.  That is the crucial lesson here.

Now the overall teaching of the New Testament, which I have implied into this parable is, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you,” (Col 3:13) but the question arises, which many Christians never consider, “How did God forgive us?” and the answer in Scripture is always – when we repent. Jesus has died so that justice might be seen to be done and the punishment for your sin and mine has been taken. Thus when we repent and turn to God, what he has done on the Cross then applies – but it doesn’t apply if there is no repentance. The whole of Scripture – and especially the End – makes this very clear; there is an accounting and either Jesus died for you or you have no option but to take the punishment – death.  Perhaps we just take for granted this teaching, so consider, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times (and if he – implied) comes back to you and says, `I repent,’ forgive him.” (Lk 17:3,4) Forgiveness is always conditional.

But there is also another major aspect to all this. How are we to feel about our offender while we are waiting for him to repent and come and ask for our forgiveness? We are to have his/her wellbeing at heart and desire and do all we can to help them come to repentance, and to be in a place of blessing with God – because that is what God does to us while He waits for us to repent. (A help in this is to realise that almost certainly when we were offended, we contributed to the situation, we contributed to their wrong doing. Joseph in the Old Testament is often cited as one who forgave his brothers but the truth was that he had contributed to provoking them to act against him by his pride and arrogance. Be careful; how we might look down on our offender; we may not be in such a strong position as we thought).

So two things: first, how do you feel about the person who has offended you (and it may be in a really bad way)? Is your desire for them to repent, and perhaps be saved, or at the very least their offence be put right before God and before you and then be reconciled to you and you to them? Second, when they do come and ask your forgiveness, are you ready to give it, for this is what this parable is all about?

Do you see something here? This requires much more grace than that ‘cheap forgiveness’ that sometimes appears in the media that simply says, “It’s all right. I forgive him/her/them.” No it’s not all right, it diminishes the awfulness of the sin and denies justice. Forgiveness in the Bible is a legal declaration of what has already been declared in heaven once the words of repentance have been spoken. God does not forgive blatant sin when there is no repentance. If someone sins, they have an issue with God. Yes, as Christians, our salvation is not at risk for a single (or few) sin, but we do have issues before God if we have not repented and we will have to face them one day, whether on this earth or in the time to follow.

When we repent God WILL forgive: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and WILL forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9)  So if our brother or sister comes to us and confesses their sin and seeks our forgiveness, we MUST make sure we give it. Amen? Amen!

40. The Lost Sheep

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 40.  The Lost Sheep

Mt 18:12   What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?

The context of our present verse above starts right back at the beginning of the chapter when the disciples ask Jesus about who is the greatest in the kingdom (v.1). In answer he called a child over and using it as a visual aid he warned them that unless you had childlike, simple faith, you could not enter the kingdom (v.2-4). He then added a strong warning about the consequences of how we should guide our children, either to him or to sin (v.5-7). That led on to the outlandish suggestion that it would be better to cut off a part of your body than sin (v.8,9) and then a warning not to look down on children with their simple faith (implied v.10) and he then goes on to tell this parable to show that each and every one of them was precious to him.

Verses 12 and 13 are the parable and verse 14 the applicatio0n. First the parable: What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” (v.12,13) So let’s look at the detail. The owner has a hundred sheep. That is important: the fact is he has a lot of sheep to care about. But then one of the sheep wanders away. What does the owner do? Does he forget the wanderer and blame it for being stupid? Does he consider looking after the other ninety-nine more important? No, he leaves the ninety-nine and goes out looking until he finds that lost wanderer. When he finds that lost one he is very happy. In fact, he is more happy about finding that one lost sheep than about all the others that did not wander off.

Now we have to be sensible and say that this does not mean he does not care for the other ninety-nine, only that because that one was lost he is particularly thankful that it has now been found. Then comes the simple application: “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (v.14) Very simply, Jesus looked out at the number of children that we were there in the crowd and says that God is concerned for every single one of them.

Now let’s get to the heart of this simple story. Let’s be honest, there are times when we look on ‘disreputable’ people and we write them off, people perhaps who are simply different from us, people of a different colour or culture. Jesus’ simple words in this simple parable don’t allow us that option. He says every single wanderer is valuable to him and when they turn back to him, he is overjoyed. Yes, he has focused on children in response to the original question about greatness, but now I would suggest, this parable is bigger than only children.

When Luke records this same teaching (which may have been on another occasion for Jesus would surely have taught these same things many times in many different places) he concludes with, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Lk 15:7) i.e. he makes the lost sheep an unbelieving sinner who repents and comes into the kingdom.  Matthew doesn’t seem to make the distinction; his lost sheep could easily be a believer who has drifted away.

The main point is Jesus’ joy over the returning wanderer. Luke puts this story (the lost sheep) together with the parables of the Lost Coin and the parable of the Lost Son. The same message is conveyed in each of them – joy when that which is lost is found. The picture of the lost wanderer is most clearly portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-24) which concludes, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Lk 15:23,24).

One of the things that is missing from these stories is recrimination; the owner or the father (in the Lost Son parable) does not chide the lost animal/son. Their folly is obvious enough, Jesus is simply concerned to show how thankful he feels when a prodigal returns.

But there is another important facet of this story –that of the other two parables that Luke adds. Here the owner went out searching for the lost sheep. In the Lost Coin parable, the woman swept and cleaned the houses and kept searching until she had found the lost coin. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is clear than the father was out keeping watch for the returning son: “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) We may be careless about the lost around us (prodigals who have left the church or simply unbelievers who have never turned to Christ) but Jesus is out on the lookout for those who are lost and who are open to ‘being found’.  There is an attitudinal thing here. The Pharisees wanted to condemn all who fell short of their standards; Jesus wants to save and redeem all who will turn to him.

I was recently in a group context where several people were launching off about those in their church who were not so all out for God as they felt they were, I reminded them of how Jesus came to seek and save the lost AND those in the kingdom who are a bit slow of understanding. The truth is that we all fall short in some way or another and none of us have room to point fingers of judgment. I am a redeemed lost sinner. Jesus came and found me and started stirring a hunger in me (which I didn’t recognize at the time) until he eventually convicted me of my need of him and the Father’s will in my life.

As I have often said in these studies, God is the Great Initiator, He is the one who comes looking for us and for that reason, as the apostle Paul might have said, we have no room to boast. It was all of Him. And it if is true of us (and it is!) then it is also true of the prodigals and the lost around us. Can we be his instruments to reach them? Will we be open to them? Do we see them as precious to Him rather than ‘judgment fodder’? His longing is to redeem not to destroy (see and learn Ezek 18:23.32, 33;11). May we have that same longing.

10. Choices & Consequences

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 10.  Choices and Consequences 

Mt 7:24,26  Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock….. everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”

The parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock (for it is a parable, a story rather than mere word comparisons of the analogies we have seen so far) is probably the most famous story that any child who has been to Sunday School will have learnt – and perhaps even sung about. The story is about making choices and the consequences that follow and in that, it is just like the analogy that Jesus spoke about a few verses earlier – going through the narrow gate of obedience brings life, compared to going through the wide gate which leads to destruction. That too was about choices and the consequences that follow. That cannot be emphasised enough in respect of this present parable and as such it goes to the very heart of everything about the Christian faith – which is all about making choices, and the consequences that follow.

The starting point though, of this very comprehensive little parable, is the nature of two men – a wise man and a foolish man, and they are shown to be what they are by the choices they make and the consequences that follow. It is a mystery why people are like they are. Some argue genetics, others argue upbringing, but the reality is that we each have free will and although there may be either hereditary or training (or lack of it) that suggest to us certain paths to take, we each have free will and sufficient intellect (at least for the vast majority) to decide which path we want to take. Very often the path follows very shallow or brief thinking, but the ability is there, even though we may not use it to its fullest extent.

Before we go any further, it is perhaps worth checking this as a broader scriptural teaching. Solomon wrote, He who sows wickedness reaps trouble.” (Prov 22;8) and “he who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.” (Prov 11:18) which, combined may be the reason for the apostle Paul’s teaching: “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:7,8) It is the same teaching as we find here, although here we are left thinking a little more about the nature of the ‘destruction’.

There is nothing unusual about this matter of making choices for it appears in many ways in life. Economics is sometimes defined as the ‘science’ of making choices as to how to use scarce resources. Sometime politics is said to be how to make choices for the best running of society. Psychology is about how all behaviour is or is not a matter of choice. When it comes to spiritual choices they prove to be the most significant of all because they not only affect the present but also the eternal future.

So we have two men, a wise man and a foolish man and in Jesus’ story they both decide to build a house. One builds his house on rock and the other on sand. This is not rocket science, this is stuff that any child can understand. But then a storm comes along with torrential rain, and the obvious happens. The rain just runs off the rock but washes away the sand and so the second house collapses. It is a patently obvious story.

Now what is it all about? Jesus makes it very plain for he prefaces both halves of the story with the explanation: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (v.24 and “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (v.26) It’s all about listening to Jesus and then making a choice – whether to obey his instructions, or not.

But Jesus doesn’t just say building on rock is smart and building on sand is stupid, he spells out why it is – because we live in a world where storms come and the foundations are tested. Ah! This is at the heart of this story – the foundations, rock and sand as we’ve already seen. One can withstand storms and one cannot. Obeying me, says Jesus, means you can withstand the storms of life. Disregarding my teaching means the storms of life will bring you down. So two things to be further considered: what are ‘the storms of life’ and what is the teaching of Jesus?

Well ‘storms of life’ occur because we live in a fallen world and they can be things that just naturally randomly happen because the world is not working as it was when God first made because of the effect of sin, even on the physical world (which few of us understand). They can be literal storms, floods, hurricanes etc., things that cause physical damage and may destroy our homes or our businesses. But they may also be things that are caused by the sinfulness of mankind and so we may bring them on ourselves because of our own folly, or others may seek to bring them on us. In the month I write this the world has known cyber attacks which in the UK means dozens of hospitals were shut down putting lives at risk and causing immense inconvenience. The sinfulness of mankind. We have also in the UK a terrorist bomb killing and maiming dozens, specifically targeted at young people and children. The sinfulness of mankind. Even more we have had three random terrorist running amok in London killing people with knives. The sinfulness of mankind.  Because we live in this fallen world, we can get caught up in the outworkings of such things – ‘natural’ or man-made. These ‘storms of life’ can include physical illnesses or infirmities, mental breakdowns, relational breakdowns and so on. They can all be things that threaten to bring us down in misery or collapse. How do we cope with such things?

So what is Jesus’ teaching? Repent, turn away from your self-centred and godless life and turn to God. Receive what Jesus has done for you on the Cross so that your sins may be forgiven, you may be adopted into God’s family and receive the power of His Holy Spirit into your life as a new power source. Sometimes we call that power source ‘grace’, His ability imparted to us to enable us to cope with whatever comes along and to rise above it. THIS is why Christians can survive while their neighbours subside into a heap of misery, this is why when there are national catastrophes it is so often Christians who rise up and provide solace, care, concern and help.

It is not because they are good in themselves, but because they become the instruments of God who wants to bring these things, help to people who are suffering. Why doesn’t God stop these things, people often say? Because you demand independence and so He respects you enough to give it to you, and so He won’t leap in to counter every wrong thought, or wrong deed that unleashes harm – but He is there the moment you turn to Him and seek Him. He doesn’t want harm to come to you, but He respects the choices you make – to build on rock or sand and, if you built on sand, He will be there if you cry out to Him when your life fell around your ears – but how sad that it has to come to that sometimes!

Addendum: Three further thoughts

  1. Not merely hearing but putting into practice. I wonder how many churches go this far?
  2. Bad choices: Jesus can redeem the less than perfect choices we sometimes make!
  3. Storms of life: these happen because it is a fallen world and not the fault of the second builder – the focus is on not making poor choices and not on laying guilt for the storms of life than come – God may allow them but they can ‘just happen’

1. Salt

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 1.  Salt

Mt 5:13  You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

I have entitled this series ‘Analogies & Parables’ because I know that some people include any ‘teaching picture’ in a list of Jesus’ parables and yet it seems to me that mostly Jesus real parables were mini-stories, but he didn’t limit himself to just using such mini-stories to illustrate his teaching, he also used pictures or analogies as well. An analogy in a dictionary is “a resemblance in some aspect which the imagination finds in two or more things that are essentially different”. In our starting one we find Jesus calling us ‘salt’ We are not sodium chloride but he is teaching us that something about our lives, as his followers, will be similar to the effects and usages of salt.

The fact that Matthew writes, Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable,” (Mt 13:34) means we should not be surprised that in his Gospel there are about forty of these analogies and parables. Now there are various things that naturally flow out of this verse above.

First, in this opening analogy, Jesus speaks to his followers and starts with the word, “You” which sounds fairly obvious but whatever he means by calling us salt, he means we, and not unbelievers, are salt, i.e. salt is different from non-salt, we are to be different from non-believers. Now, as I say, this may sound somewhat obvious but some believers are ashamed of being different from their non-Christian neighbour and the reason for that, I suggest, is that they have never taken in the reality of the person Jesus has made them when they came to him and were born again. The presence of the Holy Spirit, indwelling us, means that we will automatically be different, as we allow Him to live out Jesus’ life from within us. This is a fundamental starting point.

Second, later in the verse, he speaks of this chemical that has lost its saltiness being “no longer good for anything,” which puts the emphasis on salt being used to do good. Jesus’ point in this Sermon on the Mount, starting here in chapter 5 of Matthew, is that believers, his followers, are to have a good effect in this world. This is a ‘Fallen World’ now Sin prevails in it since the Fall, but Jesus is not happy to leave it like that. When he died on the Cross he didn’t just do it to save individuals (although that was part of it), he did it so that those individuals who were saved would have an effect on this world, an effect that changes this world for good. When we look back, particularly to the last two centuries, at the lives of Christians and what they achieved, we see there were those concerned to educate the illiterate, who were some of the first to establish proper schools, we see those who were moved by compassion for the sick who set up hospitals, and in more recent decades, hospices for those terminally ill to be lovingly cared for, and we see those who were concerned at abuse of workers who were some of the first to establish unions to counter those abuses. In many and varied ways, the Christian Church has worked into society and brought good for all.

Third, continuing with what salt does, we see that it can have a purifying effect because of its own purity which was esteemed in ancient days. In the same way that light pushes back darkness (which we’ll see in the next study) so our purity can have a purifying effect in the community to which we belong. Our love, our goodness, our compassion, our honesty, our integrity, all these things have a purifying effect where we are out there in the midst of our community, when people know the reason why we hold to all of these things – we are Jesus’ followers.

Fourth, and flowing on from that, salt was used as a preservative in ancient times, and our presence, likewise, in society is to have a preserving effect. Sadly we have not been very good at that in the past century or so which is why our influence has become less in many parts of the world, and in many situations we have been marginalized. This is not so only in places around the globe where the Holy Spirit has been allowed to enliven the Church and its witness. We need to regain a closeness with the Lord whereby His love, His power and His revelation is seen in our lives, impacting the world around us and preventing decline as well as purifying.

Fifth, a third effect or usage of salt is to lend flavour to things. Is the reality of our local community that our presence is welcomed, our presence adds something which is really good for society? In a world of stress that desperately turns to ‘mindfulness’ techniques from Eastern religion, do those around us find we are those who come with peace and serenity? In a world that takes millions of tablets to stave off depression, do those around us find we are a people of joy and lightness? This is the flavouring effect.

Sixth, modern science tells us that a right balance of salt in our diet is essential for health and wellbeing. It seems there is always controversy about how much. At the time of writing a recent study has challenged the long-held belief that too much salt raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and has said that too little will do that.  So do our lives bring a balanced input bringing health and well-being to our communities?

Seventh, there are disputes among scientists as to whether salt can genuinely loose its saltiness but perhaps the truth is that when sodium chloride is affected by other chemicals it ceases to be pure sodium chloride and so Jesus’ point remains – unless we hold to the characteristics of salt, we will lose our impact on this world, the impact Jesus wants us to have. Other people seek to change the world for good by politics or by charitable works, but outside of Christ these things tend to self-centred and godless effort and fail to bring true life to the world that only Jesus can bring. Ultimately, it is Jesus in us, the Holy Spirit in us, when given free reign in our lives, who brings these various effects of salt to bear on our world. What does this simple little analogy say? We are designed to be world changers. May we be that!