Tag Archives: Parable

The Pursuit

Whoever pursues righteousness and love
    finds life, prosperity and honor.

Proverbs 21:21 (NIV)

A recently released study showed that the number of church-going Christians in the United States has dropped significantly in the past twenty years. As usual, I have heard a number of media outlets fanning the flames of fear, anxiety, and panic at the news. I’m not getting my undies in a bunch over it. There are some fascinating questions to be asked, contemplated, and discussed regarding the details in the data. Fear leads to all sorts of silly, reactive behavior.

When I was young and starting out on my faith journey, many institutional churches had a keen interest in morality and political power. There was, I know, a genuine motivation in being followers of Jesus. I experienced it first hand in my own life and in the sincere mentors I wrote about yesterday who taught me spiritual disciplines. There was also, however, a drive for size, numbers, and political influence within media-driven pastors and leaders. I myself witnessed and was often a part of a push to get people to pray the sinner’s prayer and walk an aisle to accept Jesus. While that launched many faith journeys, my own included, there were many who simply believed that they had received the heavenly stamp of approval. They had their spiritual “fire insurance” policy that would keep them out of hell, and their ticket was punched for heaven. This was often not the start of a faith journey towards becoming more like Jesus, but a transactional religious rite.

Jesus addressed this in His parable of the sower. The seed falls on all sorts of soil. Some show signs of life and growth, but never grows to maturity or produces a healthy, abundant crop.

My own observation is that there have been many who were part of institutional denominations and churches for reasons that were far different than a personal spiritual journey to follow Jesus. It could have been familial, cultural, and/or social expectation in a time when the institutional church was part of the fabric of our society. There has been a huge shift in the past twenty years. Denominations are imploding. The institutions are falling apart. In addition, being a follower of Jesus involves regular fellowship with other believers and worship. Membership and participation in an institutional church provide the opportunity for those things. At the same time, I have known many regular church members and attenders who neither worship nor participate in any real spiritual relationship with others. In addition, an institutional church is not the only place that the disciplines of worship and fellowship can be found.

This brings me back to the proverb from today’s chapter that I pasted above. It cuts right to the heart of the matter and makes me ask: “What am I pursuing?” If it’s simply a religious rite or a transactional moment that gives me some sense of eternal security, then it’s a very different thing than me being a follower of Jesus. What I have discovered is that being a follower of Jesus is a faith journey because it is a never-ending pursuit and a seeking after becoming the person Jesus calls me to be. As the proverb states, it’s not a pursuit of religion and heaven, but of righteousness and love.

Jesus said:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [life’s basic necessities] will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself asking the very simple question: “What am I pursuing?” Then there is a follow-up question that is difficult, but necessary: “What do I want to say I am pursuing, and what do my daily words, actions, relationships, purchases, time spent, and energy expended reveal to be my life’s pursuits?

Righteousness and love.

Sometimes, I have to recalibrate and remember what the goal is. Otherwise, I get distracted pursuing so many other things.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Open Spiritual Eyes

Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.
Luke 19:47 (NIV)

I’m am spending a couple of days this week working on-site with a client. I will meet with members of my client’s inside sales team and talk to them about the service they’re providing customers on the phone, which we have assessed. We’ll listen to calls together and I’ll share tips and strategies for improving the customer’s experience in those “moments of truth.”

Over the years I have learned, however, that there is something much broader that is always going on when I’m on-site with a client. The agents I train don’t work in a vacuum. There are all sorts of things going on around them, systemically, that affect their behavior and attitudes which spill out, often unintentionally, in their conversations with customers. Office environment, corporate policies, relationships with managers, and crazy-makers on the team can all have a significant impact on an individual agent’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. If I don’t have my antennae up to understand the larger picture, I’m going to be ineffective at helping my client focus on what he or she needs to do.

When reading through a chapter, it is so easy to focus on the individual stories and lose sight of the larger context of what is happening. In today’s chapter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for His final, climactic week.

Politically, the hottest issue of that day was Rome’s occupation of Judea. There was constant tension between Rome and the Jewish leaders. The temple was more than just a religious center. It was the epicenter of power and finance in the area. The religious leaders of Jerusalem who held sway had a very lucrative racket going.

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the biggest religious festival of the year. The Passover attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem and the temple. Jewish faithful were required to offer sacrifices and offerings while they were at the temple. Often those sacrifices and offerings were sold outside the temple, but the temple had its own currency. Pilgrims first had to exchange their currency before they could buy their sacrifices. The leaders were making money on both the exchange rate and the sacrifices and offerings they were selling.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, He tells a parable about servants who are given money by their employer to invest while he’s away. It’s a parable that Jesus has told before, but on the eve of His arrival in Jerusalem He changes it. In this telling, the employer leaves to be made King, much like the local monarch, Herod, would have traveled to Rome to be given authority for the area by the Roman Empire. The pending ruler’s people in Jesus revised telling do not want this person to be King. Nevertheless, he returns as King and pays back his followers based on how they’d invested what had been given.

Jesus immediately heads into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, as His followers proclaim Him as King. The religious leaders vehemently complain much like those in the parable who did not want the protagonist of the story to be King.

Upon His arrival, Jesus goes to the Temple and drives out the money changers and vendors selling sacrifices. Again, it relates directly to the parable Jesus just told. Those leaders of God’s people who had been entrusted with oversight of God’s people and God’s law. Rather than investing in love and generosity, the leaders perverted it for their own self-centered power and personal wealth while treating others with self-righteous contempt and condemnation.

Jesus was not the first “messianic upstart” the religious leaders had dealt with. They had a well-worn playbook of getting rid of anyone who threatened their power and wealth. Jesus was in their sites. Jesus knew it.

As He entered Jerusalem, Jesus offered a lament for the city and its religious leaders. They didn’t see, perceive, or understand what God was doing and saying through Jesus. Like the parable, they would suffer the consequences. Within a generation, the political resistance to Rome would boil over. Rome will surround the city and fulfill Jesus’ prophet words. The city and the Temple would be utterly destroyed.

On Sunday Wendy and I were traveling. We were talking about our “word” for the year, and conversing about where we find ourselves in our spiritual journeys and our life journeys. We don’t want to live in a vacuum, unaware of what God is doing in us, through us, and around us. We prayed together, seeking for those things to be revealed and not hidden.

This morning I’m praying for spiritual eyes that are open to see what’s happening systemically in my client’s office, to see the subtext of what’s going on in today’s chapter, to see the bigger picture of what God is doing in and around me and Wendy as we walk this journey together.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened…

Ephesians 1:18a
Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!
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A Seat at the Table

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
Luke 14:7-9 (NIV)

When I was a young man, I was honored to be invited to a special banquet. I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to attend such an occasion again in my lifetime. The banquet hall was enormous and it was filled with some of the most powerful individuals in the world, including politicians, diplomats, and celebrities. The speaker’s table on the stage, by the podium, was a who’s who of the most elite individuals I was used to seeing in the news almost every day.

The individual who had invited me was a person with a certain amount of social status in certain circles. I was just a young man and a nobody who was shocked to have even been allowed to be there at all. So it was, that I shouldn’t have been surprised that when we approached the ticket table and my host asked for our tickets, my host was given a ticket with a table and seat assignment. My ticket, however, relegated me to stand in a line outside the banquet hall with a throng of similar nobodies. I would only be admitted if some VIP didn’t show up.

I can remember being really disappointed and embarrassed. I had felt so honored to be invited, and now I felt so humiliated to have to stand outside while my host enjoyed the banquet. I also remember my host’s attitude upon realization of the situation. The subtext of my host’s words felt to me like: “Well, sucks to be you. Good luck! Hope you get in.”

The banquet was well underway and many of the guests were already finished with their meal when the door opened and an usher pointed to me. I was led through the sea of tables to a table right in front of the ballroom, just a few feet from the podium. I was given the seat of an international diplomat who hadn’t shown up for the banquet and had the privilege of a front-row seat to hear some of the most incredible speakers in the world.

After the banquet, I met back up again with my host who was clearly frustrated. Their guaranteed seat was at a table at the very back of the banquet hall. They could barely see the stage and podium. To be honest, I felt a bit of schadenfreude at that moment. I kinda still feel it as I retell the story.

That experience came to mind this morning as I read Jesus’ words to the guests at a banquet. Be humble. Let others have the seat of prominence. Be willing to wait in the lobby for an open seat.

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the quiet this morning I have to confess to you that my attitude wasn’t so humble as I waited behind the banquet hall door. I felt anger and disappointment. The end of the story, however, taught me an important lesson that I’ve never forgotten.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Not Getting It

There were still people left from the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these people were not Israelites). Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land—whom the Israelites had not destroyed—to serve as slave labor, as it is to this day.
2 Chronicles 8:7-8 (NIV)

Jesus told a simple parable of the King’s servant who owed the king 10,000 bags of gold. To those who listened to Jesus tell this story, the idea of owing 10,000 bags of gold was a ridiculous amount of money. It would be like me owing someone billions or trillions of dollars. More than I could pay back in many lifetimes.

Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back,” the servant said to the king. This is also ridiculous because I couldn’t pay back billions or trillions of dollars in many lifetimes. The king decides to forgive the debt and let the servant go.

As he’s leaving the palace, the servant runs into his buddy who owed him a hundred bucks. When he demanded repayment of the debt, his buddy says, “Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back!” (Sound familiar?) The King’s servant who’d just been forgiven from multiple lifetimes worth of debt refused to forgive his buddy a debt of a hundred bucks.

Jesus point was clear. If God forgives me for my lifetime of mistakes and poor choices and then I refuse to forgive an individual who offended me, then I’ve completely missed the point of everything Jesus came to teach me.

Buried in today’s chapter is a simple observation that brought this parable to mind this morning. Solomon, King of Israel, builds his temples and palaces by forcing all of the non-Israelite people of the land into slave-labor. Now, this was common practice among nations and empires of that day. Solomon was not doing anything differently than what every other King around him would do. But there’s a difference.

The roots of Solomon’s Kingdom were in the story of the Exodus. When Solomon’s people were living in the land of Egypt they were forced into slave labor to work for Pharaoh. God went to great lengths to free them from their slavery and lead them back to Canaan. Now, Solomon builds his Temple to the God who freed his people from slavery, by enslaving others.

As if to add insult to injury, Solomon then has his slaves build a palace for his queen, Pharaoh’s daughter of Egypt, the very nation from whom his people were freed from slavery.

Along my journey I continually encounter individuals who live very religious lives. They never miss a church service. They listen only to Christian music and Christian radio stations, watch only Christian television, read only books written by Christian authors, refuse to darken the door of a pub, associate only with Christians of acceptable repute in the community, and etc. And yet, among these types of squeaky-clean religious types I’ve known I can recall specific individuals who were slum lords, deceptive businessmen, money launderers, bigots, misogynists, and the like.

This morning I’m thinking about Solomon. I’m thinking about the religious individuals I’ve observed and described. I’m thinking about Jesus’ parable. I’m thinking about my own life. Where are the blind spots in my own life? Are there any areas of my life when I’m subjecting others to judgement or burdens from which I, myself, have been freed? Where are the places in my life where it’s obvious to God that I still don’t get what He came to teach me?

Called Still Deeper

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV)

I have a confession to make this morning. I’ve been aggravated recently with a particular relational scar. It’s a past injury. Call it near ancient history. I forgave. We moved on and our paths led different places in life. It’s easy to forget past injuries when you don’t really have to continue in relationship with the person you’ve forgiven. Now,  years later I look to the horizon and our paths appear to once again be converging.

My scar itches.

I was struck this morning by Peter’s command, not just to love but to love deeply. And the reason for the call to this deep love is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a tough one, and Jesus certainly addressed it head on. Peter knew this only too well, because it was his question that prompted Jesus to address the matter:

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”

Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.

“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.

“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’

“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Ironic that Peter would ask about forgiveness when it would be he who three times denied that he even knew Jesus, who heard the rooster crow, who looked into the eyes of his Lord at that very moment and experienced the need of seventy-times-seven forgiveness. Peter knows all about deep love and forgiveness.

Some other words of Jesus come to mind this morning as I ponder:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I sit in the quiet this morning with my itchy scar, and I’m reminded that Jesus command to love others was never just about loving those who are easy for me to love and those with whom I don’t have to be in relationship. Jesus calls me to follow deeper on the path of love. To follow Jesus is to push into the deep waters of Love that He waded into when He forgave my heaping helpings of weakness, foolishness, and failings. That was the whole point of His parable of the indebted servant. I have been forgiven for so much, how can I not forgive another for so much less even if I have to keep forgiving in exponential measure.

I’m seeing myself in Jesus parable this morning. If my love is not deep enough to salve itchy old relational scars of an already forgiven issue in the past then it is, plain and simple, not deep enough.

Today, I’m pushing deeper.

“Enough” With Which to be Faithful

“The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

“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!’”
Matthew 25:22-23 (NIV)

A wise counselor once asked me to name my pain. “At the depth of your soul,” he asked me, “what would you label the core ache that feeds your strongest feelings of sadness and inadequacy?”

I pondered the question, but it didn’t take me long to come up with an answer: “Not enough.”

I came to realize that most of my life I have had to actively work to overcome an inherent sense of never being enough, giving enough, doing enough, loving enough, caring enough, sharing enough, serving enough, or achieving enough. Addressing “not enough” is a  large part of my spiritual journey.

In today’s chapter Jesus tells a parable that has grown increasingly powerful to me as the years have gone on. As with most of Jesus’ parables, it is quite simple. A master gives each of three servants different amounts of his money and goes away for a long time. The master returns to find that two of the three have invested his money and earned a return on the investment. The third buried his master’s money out of fear and returned just what he’d been given.

Two lessons from this parable have become quite important to me.

First, the master does not evenly distribute his money among the servants. One was given five bags, another two, and the other one. This is another reminder to me that a seemingly fair and equitable distribution of anything in this temporal world has never been part of the economy of God’s eternal Kingdom. I have been given more than some and less than others. The question has never been what I’ve been given, but what I do with what I’m given.

Herein lies the ying and the yang of my core pain. I must learn to be content with what I’ve been given, but also accept that I am responsible for it. I must learn to accept that I have been given “enough” and that God knows I am capably adequate to faithfully invest it wisely.

The second lesson I take from this parable is in the master’s compliment to his servants. “You have been faithful with a few things” he says. The servants were not burdened with the entirety of their master’s affairs. They were given a relatively small amount and were rewarded simply for being faithful with what they’d been given.

Sometimes my feelings of “not enough” grow to epic disproportion in my heart and mind, fueling all sorts of unproductive thoughts and paralyzing fears (much like the third servant in the parable). I quite literally blow everything up in my mind until its completely out of proportion to the truth of the situation. In these moments the master’s compliment helpfully reminds me to boil things down to the simplicity of being faithful to the tasks right  in front of me.

This morning, that means serving my client well in a day full of meetings. If you’ll please excuse me, I have a few things to which I must faithfully attend. And, that will be enough for today.

Have a good day.

Featured image courtesy of AZQuotes

Missing the Point

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)

Yesterday began the celebration of what’s known as “Holy Week” for those who follow Jesus. It’s the annual celebration of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. The events themselves are dramatic. The week begins with he crowds welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem and shouting His praises. It will end with the same crowds screaming for His execution.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. The temple was the center of Jewish worship. It was where all Jews made pilgrimages to make sacrifices to atone for their sins as prescribed in the ancient laws of Moses. The temple was where the institutional religious leaders held sway in a racket that made them powerful and wealthy.

The temple had its own currency and it had an official line of sacrificial animals. Pilgrims who came to make their sacrifice first had to exchange their Roman currency for Temple currency, and the money changers made exorbitant profits in the exchange that lined the pockets of the powerful religious leaders. Poor pilgrims who brought their own animals for sacrifice would learn that their animals were unacceptable to the priests, and the priests would demand that they buy the temple’s own brand of official sacrifices. The priests and leaders had turned religion into a money-making machine that bilked the poor and the weak.

So, Jesus begins His climactic week by overturning the money changer’s tables and setting the official sacrificial doves free in a provocative act of challenge to the powerful racketeering priests. It makes Jesus even more popular in the eyes of the marginalized and directly threatens the powers-that-be. The rest of today’s chapter is an account of the showdown between Jesus and the religious leaders who sent envoys with trick questions. Their plan is to trip Jesus up and give them reason to discredit or arrest Him.

In this showdown, Jesus gives another simple but powerful parable. Two sons are given a task. One initially refuses but eventually obeys. The other agrees but ends up not doing the task.

The message of the parable is clear. The priests were given the task of shepherding God’s people, but they ignored the task of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Instead, they pursued judgment, greed, power, and self-aggrandizement. Jesus’ followers, on the other hand, were marginalized outsiders in the context of the religious hierarchy, yet they were actively pursuing Jesus’ teaching.

I am reminded this morning of our daughter emailing me from a missions trip in Africa some years ago. She was in a challenging situation with a highly dysfunctional team. Her team “leader” seemed interested only in sitting around the foreign resort area doing nothing all day. Taylor said the person on the team who acted the most like Jesus was the one member saying they didn’t even believe in God. It was Jesus’ parable come to life. Given the parallel to today’s chapter, I believe it quite possible that the atheist on Taylor’s team was closer to God than those who were the most religious.

Holy Week is chalk full of opportunity for religious services, religious acts, and religious observations. This morning I’m reminded that we easily turn our churches into a 21st century example of the temple in Jesus’ day.  We can dutifully attend services, take communion on Maundy Thursday, weep on Good Friday, and shout “Hallelujah!” on Easter morning in our best Easter dress. And, the whole time we can be ignoring the most important things Jesus’ asked of us.