When I was in high school, there was one person who was kind of my ideal. The things that were valued by most people in the school were good looks, popularity, athletic ability, musical ability and good marks. Some kids were goof offs, but had great athletic ability. Some were good in music, but were not popular, but there was one guy in our class who had it all. His girl friend was one of the prettiest girls in the class, he was a starter on the basketball team, he played in a band, he got good marks and was liked by everyone.
Since I have become a pastor, I have often wished I could be like the pastors who are super successful. Pastors whose churches grow rapidly, who preach exciting sermons and to whom people come for counselling and are able to give wise and gentle advice.
We admire strength, ability, competence and success. On the other hand, we look down on those who are at the opposite end of the scale.
Our first church was a store front church in The Pas. One of the things we did was offer coffee and cup-a-soup to people who came into the store. We ran a kind of drop in center. Most of the people who dropped in were alcoholics and I have to admit that I did not always care for them. Sometimes they became a nuisance. Especially when they came in quite drunk and I had to ask them to leave or force them to leave. It was hard to look positively on them.
In one of the churches we had a lady attend who was really needy. She didn’t have a job and found it hard to keep one. She had been in a series of poor relationships and at the time we knew her, she was separated from her husband. She had trouble making ends meet. Some of the people of the church helped her financially, with counselling and in other ways. It was hard to keep on helping her. It became tiresome and some wondered why she couldn’t begin to get her act together.
These are the values we often have. We admire strength in others and present our best features to other people, we question weakness and hide our own weaknesses from others so people don’t know we have them. Are those the same values God has? How does he look at people? What does he want of us ability or need?
There are six stories in Luke that help us understand what God wants of us.
The first is an illustration which Jesus told his disciples. It seems there was a judge who was no respecter of persons. He had no concern to do what God wanted nor did he care what people wanted. He handed out justice according to what he wanted. A certain widow, who had a claim on justice in the sight of God but who was weak before men, came before this judge to plead for justice against some kind of an adversary. The judge had no inclination to do the morally right thing because he did not fear God. He had no inclination to do justice on the human plain because the woman could not pay him anything to help him make up his mind. Yet, Jesus says, eventually the judge relented because he did not want to be bothered with her constant complaints.
The point of the story is to tell us that God is not like that at all. God is a judge who hears the requests of his people and is certain to respond to them.
In another story, Jesus tells about two men who went to the temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee. He knew that he was pretty good. He had observed the law carefully and expected, because of his strength of spiritual character, that God was quite pleased with him. Not only did he meet the expectations of the religious community, he exceeded them. Fasting was expected twice a year, but he fasted twice a week. Tithing was expected of some income, but he tithed out of all his income.
The other man, the tax collector, had come to realize that he was a nobody. He had nothing with which to come to God. All agreed that tax collectors could not be trusted, that they were greedy, grasping, dishonest men. He accepted everyone’s judgement of him and knew that he was not a good man.
The Pharisee prayed out of his strength rejoicing before God at his goodness. The tax collector prayed out of his deep need and humbly asked God for mercy.
One day as Jesus was teaching, parents began to bring their children to him so that he could bless them. The disciples saw the important things that Jesus was doing and chased the parents away. In the social scheme of things, men were of first importance, women second and children third. If Jesus was teaching men, children were in the way. But Jesus did not have that perspective. He welcomed the children and invited them to come to Him and experience blessing from Him.
A certain rich ruler was keenly interested in eternal life. He came to ask Jesus how one could gain it. Jesus pointed to the second part of the ten commandments and quoted four of these commandments. The rich ruler was pretty confident that he had satisfied all of these requirements, but had a sense that that was not enough.
Then Jesus pointed to the heart of the matter for this man. He was a man who depended on his wealth, which was substantial. He did not follow Jesus because he was not prepared to give up all that he had.
Jesus concluded by saying that it is hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God. He indicated that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When we read this, we need to read it at face value. Jesus was talking about a real camel and the eye of a real needle. What he was describing was an impossibility.
When the disciples heard this, they were affirmed by Jesus because they had left everything to follow Him.
In the next story, Jesus is being yelled at by a man who cannot see him, but has been told that Jesus is walking by. With insistence and persistence, in spite of the shushing of the crowd, the man screams out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus agreed to meet with him and as a result of this meeting, healed him of his blindness.
The last story in this series is the familiar story of Zacchaeus. Here was a man who was more than a celebrity hound. He wanted to meet Jesus for good reason and that was because he needed His help. In a curious way, he made sure that he had a good view of Him by climbing a tree. As a result, Zacchaeus had supper with Jesus and Jesus concluded, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
What is the common thread in all these stories? When we had sharing during the Tuesday evening deeper life meeting, Levi Kornelsen started his testimony by admitting that he was a needy man. That is the common thread in each of these stories as well.
The widow, economically and socially weak, is an illustration of one who is helped because she asked for help. The tax collector who came in humility and need went home justified rather than the Pharisee who came in his strength and goodness. The children are welcomed and lifted up as a model of those whom Jesus receives. The rich ruler walked away empty because he had so much that he did not need God, whereas the disciples who had given up everything to follow Jesus are promised blessing both now and in eternity. The blind beggar came blind and begging and received sight because he knew that he needed help. Zacchaeus came with deep spiritual poverty and humbling himself before the Lord He received forgiveness.
This is the principle of the Bible from beginning to end. It is those who need God, who seek Him, rather than those who are strong and able who receive blessing and help from God.
At the end of the first story, Jesus asked, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Two of the stories show us what will prevent finding faith on the earth. They reveal what God is not looking for.
The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector reveal a lot about what will prevent us from experiencing the mercy and blessing of God. The Pharisee was filled with self-righteousness. He was a good man. He obeyed the commandments. Later when the rich man came and asked how to inherit eternal life, Jesus said, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery. The Pharisee had never done such things. He was not even covetous because he knew that he was not like the grasping, greedy tax collector beside him. He more than met the requirements of the law. He fasted and tithed more than he had to. Except for the attitude of superiority, he was a really good man. He was a man whom we admire. If we saw him today, he would be a pastor who fasted and prayed, who was righteous in all his behaviour, who spoke to God in a personal way. He was just like me. Bruce Larson wrote, “The church, unfortunately, has become a museum to display the victorious life.” What a jarring realization to understand that this good man was not accepted by God. What was his problem? It was not his attitude to the tax collector. His problem was much deeper than that. His problem was that he thought he was good. He had done the best he knew how, he offered that “best” to God and was quite sure that he had it made, but he did not. The problem was that he had no need of God. He was self righteous. He had made himself and sustained himself.
Sadly, that is the attitude that many Christians have about themselves. They can point to a long list of things they have done and an even longer list of things they have not done and they have no need of God because their works have made them good.
Earle Ellis writes, “Confidence about God precludes confidence in God. This is the fatal misunderstanding of all ‘merit’ religion.” “By justifying himself the Pharisee rejects justification as a gift from God.”
The other person who failed to find acceptance with God was the rich ruler. His desire was right and perhaps in the end he did find that acceptance, but we do not know that for sure. What we are presented with is the one hole in his life. He also was a righteous man. He didn’t murder, commit adultery, steal or dishonour his parents. He would be a man we would all like to have for a neighbour. He was rich and it would have been a pleasure to live beside him. We would like such a person and accept them as a friend.
Once again it is jarring to realize that he also was not acceptable to God. What was the problem? He also did not need God. He had such an abundance of things that he had no need to put his dependence on God.
This is the other thing which prevents people from finding the life of God. When they have such an abundance of things that they do not need God anymore. Once again, we realize that we are talking about a person who is very much like we are. We have much and we don’t need the help of God.
In both of these stories, we quickly realize that the disqualifiers from eternal life are the inability to depend on God because we are depending on our own resources. As long as we are fully capable of being righteous in ourselves or completely taken care of in ourselves, we come to the conclusion that we don’t need God. This is the one factor that disqualifies. This is the thing that God does not want. This is the thing that describes us as North American evangelical Christians.
So what is it that God wants? What God wants is for us to recognize that we need Him. God hates evil and unrighteousness. God hates sin. God also hates self sufficiency and desires that we come to Him and recognize our need of him. What does that involve?
Like the widow and the blind beggar, it involves asking. The widow was lifted up as an example because she asked. The grace of God was given to the blind beggar because he asked. The lesson of these stories is that we need to ask.
I have always been shy to ask for something from other people. It was my step-father who taught me that you can always ask.
Somehow we have gotten the impression that we shouldn’t bother God, but God loves for us to realize our need of him and to ask Him.
The story of the tax collector and the Pharisee reverses expectations. They would expect the Pharisee to be a prayer warrior and the tax collector a traitorous individual. They would not expect the tax collector to come and pray. The Pharisee was conscious of his own righteousness. The tax collector was conscious of his sin and could only plead for divine mercy. That is what God wants. Jesus commended this man because he knew that he was utterly helpless. His words, which reveal his attitude are given to us in verse 13, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
We won’t ask if we don’t humble ourselves and see our need. We want to offer our strength to God. We have often sung the song - “give of your best to the master.” But in this parable, it is not the one who offers his best to the master who is received, but the one who offers his weakness, his need. It takes humility to say, “I can’t, I need help.” So we need to humble ourselves and say to God. I am not able to be holy, perfect, pure, etc.
“God accepts the humble and needy, and not the proud and disdainful.”
Last week when Rick offered the children chocolate kisses, they were not hesitant to come and get them. I suspect that if he had offered them to adults, they would have been reluctant and wondered what the catch was and held back. This is the characteristic of children that Jesus lifts up. He affirms their willingness to receive.
For most of us, it is hard to receive a gift. We always want to pay back. Unless we admit that we need the gift and are willing to receive it, we will not receive the blessing of God.
A.W. Tozer wrote in The Pursuit of God, “Now, as always, God discovers Himself to "babes" and hides Himself in thick darkness from the wise and the prudent. We must simplify our approach to Him. We must strip down to essentials (and they will be found to be blessedly few). We must put away all effort to impress, and come with the guileless candor of childhood. If we do this, without doubt God will quickly respond.”
How does one receive the kingdom? Like a child - “readily, trustingly, personally.”
When Jesus said to the rich ruler, “sell everything that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” we always think that this was meant only for him. Does Jesus expect all of us to sell everything in order to receive treasure in heaven? If not literally, he does expect it of us in our hearts. As we examined previously, it is the setting our heart on possessions which leaves no room for God that is the problem. The disciples had done it literally and Jesus promised them that there would be no lack. Can we believe that if we actually or at least in our hearts leave what we have that God will take care of us? Such leaving puts us in a position in which we are totally dependent on God and that is what God wants.
The last story, that of Zacchaeus, tells us that the attitude of dependence we are talking about also means that we must repent. Zacchaeus was helpless. Isn’t it interesting that the nameless tax collector in 18:9-14 now suddenly has a face? Here is another, or perhaps the same tax collector, and his name is Zacchaeus. He knows that he has no chance of righteousness, everyone always lets him know and in his heart, he knows that what they are saying is true. So when he meets Jesus, he comes empty. He has no hope with God, but when Jesus meets him, he finds that God is open to his humble, needy attitude and his heart is changed. The reality of the change is revealed in his willingness to act on his repentance. In fact, his offer to pay back is an act of repentance. Such openness and vulnerability is what God wants of us. He wants us to humble ourselves before Him and admit our need and obey Him.
The promise is that when we come in our need, then God blesses. If you don’t need him because you are self righteous or have abundance, you will not receive from Him. If you need Him, He will bless, quickly and abundantly.
The widow was blessed with justice. The tax-collector was blessed with justification. The children were blessed by knowing acceptance, the disciples were blessed by receiving much in this life and being given the promise of eternal life. The blind beggar was blessed when he received his sight and Zacchaeus was blessed with the promise of salvation.
How do you come to God? Do you come having or needing? God wants us to come to Him knowing that we need Him. What a blessing when we come to him in this way because then we will see God act. In 18:27, when speaking about the impossibility of the rich coming to God, Jesus says, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” That is the point. As long as we don’t need God, all we have is what we have. When we know that we don’t have enough, that it is impossible for us and admit that to God, suddenly we have all the resources of the God for whom all things are possible. In which area of your life do you need God. Does He know it?