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The Gospel of Luke, ch. 7 - Great Love or Holding Back?

Luke 7:1-49


In the fourth and fifth chapter of Luke, we saw Jesus bringing healing to the blind, the hurting, and those in bondage.  In the sixth chapter of Luke, Jesus presents us with the core of his teaching and allows us to know more deeply what it means to be his disciple.  We have now seen Jesus living into the two most beautiful words we have for him:  Savior and Lord.

As Savior, Jesus presents to us the treatment for our deepest disease:  sin and death.  Through him, there is power to overcome all that restricts us in this life - be it physical or emotional or psychological or even spiritual.  The devastating and lasting effects of sin means that all of us are diagnosed with mortality.  "The wages of sin is death," a sentence that hangs around our neck whether we care to recognize it or not.  But, the good news in Jesus Christ is epitomized in his interaction with the leper in Luke 5:12-16.  Jesus "does choose" to make the leper clean and whole again.  Spiritually, Jesus is God's saying "Yes" to our overall sickness.  The antidote has been given.

Living as a Christian, though, means more than simply taking the antidote for our suffering and sin.  Once we've received Jesus' healing and figuratively or literally being raised from our death bed, it means seeking to listen to his teachings and instructions.  If he is our Savior, he must also be our Lord, as individuals like Mother Theresa to Dallas Willard have made clear.  Therefore, the teachings Jesus lays out for us aren't merely things we should consider, some type of sage advice from Jesus as Life Coach.  These are living words meant to bring us through this life in the best manner.  As baptized, reborn Christians, we are to live a life of radical simplicity and counter-cultural love.  We are to make active choices that allow us to learn humility and forgiveness by seeking to understand and bless even our enemies.  No longer content with just trying to be "good people," we are called to be saints by loving our enemies.  Yes, our enemies - the very ones who inspire the greatest animosity, fear and aggression within us.  It is only when we can begin to lay down our lives in love that we will find ourselves fully moving towards where Christ is leading.

Having made clear who Jesus is, Luke now begins to turn his attention to the next question, "How will we respond?" 

Luke 7:1-8:3 in particular is a compilation stories about individuals responding to Jesus, some with enthusiasm and eagerness, but others with hesitancy or outright resistance.  Here we meet a centurion whose heart bends in faith and love like Jesus' own heart bends.  We come back to the man we met earlier, John the Baptist, at a tougher time in his own life, and we find - perhaps - a flicker in his burning flame of faith and passion.  Is this a point where John the Baptist's own faith in Jesus is wavering?  And what does Jesus long to say to us when we get overwhelmed or worn-down in the good fight of faith?  We meet two characters at opposite ends.  One, a sinful woman who is apparently on the outside, is moved by what Jesus has to offer and goes out of her way to be close to Jesus.  The other, a respectable man of society who is apparently one of the "inner circle", can't risk much because his ego is too big and who has very little love to offer.  Finally, we meet a group of women - otherwise under appreciated in their own culture - responding with full commitment, willing to be right there with Jesus and ready to give out of their own hearts and possessions to support Jesus' life and work.

Jesus Heals a Centurion's Son

After Jesus[a] had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Darrell Bock points out for us that it is rare for Jesus to give an open commendation.  He seems to reserve his pats on the back.  But, here Jesus gladly proclaims this centurion's faith - going out of his way to lift him up as a model to follow.  What exactly is it in this man that is so commendable? 

First, some details.  This centurion was likely part of Herod Antipas's army, and he would have commanded about one hundred men.  He would have been a soldier for hire, but his duties would have included civic and political purposes and not just militaristic ones.  We know he's a Gentile, but it also appears that he is one of the "God-fearing" - a man who is geared towards loving and honoring God as the Jews did.  At first, the Jewish elders speak on this man's behalf, requesting Jesus' presence, only to have a second delegation share the centurion's respect for Jesus.

All of this leads to Jesus being "amazed."  This is the only time we hear of Jesus being blown away by someone.  This is the word for us to dwell upon and reflect.  What about this man's faith is so great?  Is it his complete, unflinching trust in Jesus?  Is it his absolute respect for Jesus' own authority as God's special agent?  Is it his orderly nature?  I'll let you decide!

Jesus Raises a Widow's Son at Nain

11 Soon afterwards[b] he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus[c] gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

This story further emphasizes the greatness and authority at work in Jesus.  It harkens back to two other powerful stories in the Old Testament where God's prophets raised children from the dead.  In that case, it was Elijah and Elisha, but their healings required some greater effort on the part of the prophet.  Elijah had to lay on the boy three times before he got up (1 Kings 17:17-24), and Elisha had to do the same plus touch the child with a staff (2 Kings 4:32-37).  As Darrell Bock says, this story further elevates Jesus' position in the popular polls.  He is a man to be regarded as a great prophet like the prophets of old.

Messengers from John the Baptist

18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19 and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 20 When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”21 Jesus[d] had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[e] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus[f] began to speak to the crowds about John:[g] “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? Someone[h] dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’
28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God,[i] because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.30 But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)
31 “To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not weep.’
33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; 34 the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

Coming right after Jesus' healing of the widow's son at Nain, this story is even more powerful.  In essence, it is raises an important question that we often face as we go deeper into our journey with Christ:  "If Jesus really is such a powerful prophet ... Indeed, if he is truly the Savior and Lord that we know that he is, why is it that there is still so much pain, division, injustice and flat-out heartache in our world?"

Some people don't see this story the same way.  There are some who want to keep a high view of John the Baptist and who tend to see this as John the Baptist throwing Jesus a soft-ball question as one last opportunity for Jesus to prove his greatness before John the Baptist is martyred.  I don't read it that way.  I see this as a moment when John the Baptist is facing the full force of injustice and struggle in this world, his own personal "Garden of Gethsemane" moment.  He is in chains.  He is in prison.  He knows his days are numbered, and maybe he is hearing reports from others about Jesus' ministry.  Yes, good things are happening, but maybe John expected Jesus to be, well, triumphant and directly effective.  Maybe John was expecting to take the reign of his ministry and usher in a more visible and direct sign of authority in this world.  That's my sense.

Again, I think this is the most authentic way to read this story.  I think it brings to the surface things that all disciples feel when we really press forward with faith and seek to go the whole way.  Even when we are disciples, we are destined to face forces that seem to wear us down and seem to undermine what God really wants to happen.  In fact, in my little experience, it seems that the deeper we go as disciples, the more we are prone to attacks of division and discouragement from the evil one.  During such moments, we can just want to see something positive and to know that God is still in control. 

I hear Jesus affirming John the Baptist's heartache, but I also hear him reminding his companion that he knew what he was getting into with this God business.  I hear him pointing out to John that even though the political leaders are still corrupt and the bad guys are still winning more than the poor or winning, the really important work is happening.  Real ministry is going on.  Real lives are being healed.  People experiencing real oppression are being given freedom and are experiencing deeper joy.  In other words, this is Jesus' subtle way of reminding us to keep our attention not on the big, international headlines, but on specific names and faces around us.  In other words, "Don't get caught up in the political dramas of the day!  Focus on doing real ministry with real people."

Secondly, I hear Jesus telling John the Baptist this:  he knew what he was getting into.  This, to me, is the essence of his comments about going out into the wilderness to see reeds blowing in the wind or to see a new fashion show.  No, John has chosen the prophetic life, which is the life we are all called to as disciples by the way.  And the prophetic life is not meant to be glamorous or comfortable.  Prophetic people and prophetic living calls for sacrifice, and it will invariably lead to rejection.  First, the rejection may be subtle.  We may just stick out a little from the crowd.  But, truly following through as a disciple means - eventually - living in such a way that we will be offensive and unpalatable.  Those who hate God's ways of love and justice will be scandalized by us as well, and - therefore - will try to spit us out or chew us up.

In other words, it's like Jesus telling John in his most loving, yet stern way, "Toughen up, John.  You knew what you were getting into when you started down this road."

A Sinful Woman Forgiven

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[j] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[k]and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[l] said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

You can either go fully and with reckless abandon towards and with Jesus, or you can try to hold onto your life and stay in a place of selfish reservation.  It's one or the other.  There's no middle ground.  This is what I see and hear in this piercing story about the sinful woman and Simon, the Pharisee (not to be confused with Simon Peter). 

It starts out looking like Simon the Pharisee is going to be the center of attention.  He convinces Jesus to join him in his house for dinner.  But, he doesn't really want to be close to Jesus.  He wants to use Jesus to build up his own social status.  He is interested in preserving his good image amongst the people.

The sinful woman is his exact opposite.  Scandalized and stigmatized as a "sinner" she starts on the outside.  She is excluded from the good homes and the powerful people.  But, she has lost all concern for protecting her precious social status.  So, she barges into the room only wanting what Jesus can offer:  forgiveness and healing.  She has given up on having a "good" reputation or being "good" in regards to how we define those things socially or on worldly terms.  She only wants to be touched and reminded of her true baptismal identity.

Moreover, she - unlike Simon the Pharisee - risks everything to love deeply.  He, meanwhile, plays everything out reasonably and with calculation.  He spends money on the dinner, but only because he knows it will build up his status and lead to a better business reputation or political clout, i.e. - more money, more power, more prestige.

If we want to follow Jesus, we must be more concerned about spending our lives in love than we are about collecting bigger pay checks, having more financial security, and being thought of as someone "great" in the eyes of others.  We must be willing to pour out our hearts over and over again, rather than thinking of ways to line our pockets!


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