Jesus believed that so long as a man was away from God he was not truly himself; he was only truly himself when he was on the way home. Beyond a doubt Jesus did not believe in total depravity. He never believed that you could glorify God by blackguarding man; he believed that man was never essentially himself until he came home to God. William Barclay
Matthew 10:8b-10 “Freely you have received; freely give. Do not set out to get gold or silver or bronze for your purses; do not take a bag for the journey, nor two tunics, nor shoes, nor a staff. The workman deserves his sustenance.”
This is a passage in which every sentence and every phrase would ring an answering bell in the mind of the Jews who heard it. In it Jesus was giving to his men the instructions which the Rabbis at their best gave to their students and disciples.
“Freely you have received,” says Jesus, “freely give.” A Rabbi was bound by law to give his teaching freely and for nothing; the Rabbi was absolutely forbidden to take money for teaching the Law which Moses had freely received from God. In only one case could a Rabbi accept payment. He might accept payment for teaching a child, for to teach a child is the parent’s task, and no one else should be expected to spend time and labour doing what is the parent’s own duty to do; but higher teaching had to be given without money and without price.
In the Mishnah the Law lays it down that, if a man takes payment for acting as a judge, his judgments are invalid; that, if he takes payment for giving evidence as a witness, his witness is void. Rabbi Zadok said, “Make not the Law a crown wherewith to aggrandize thyself, nor a spade wherewith to dig.” Hillel said, “He who makes a worldly use of the crown of the Law shall waste away. Hence thou mayest infer that whosoever desires a profit for himself from the words of the Law is helping on his own destruction.” It was laid down: “As God taught Moses gratis—so do thou.”
There is a story of Rabbi Tarphon. At the end of the fig harvest he was walking in a garden; and he ate some of the figs which had been left behind. The watchmen came upon him and beat him. He told them who he was, and because he was a famous Rabbi they let him go. All his life he regretted that he had used his status as a Rabbi to help himself. “Yet all his days did he grieve, for he said, ‘Woe is me, for I have used the crown of the Law for my own profit!'”
When Jesus told his disciples that they had freely received and must freely give, he was telling them what the teachers of his own people had been telling their students for many a day. If a man possesses a precious secret it is surely his duty, not to hug it to himself until he is paid for it, but willingly to pass it on. It is a privilege to share with others the riches God has given us.
Jesus told the twelve not to set out to acquire gold or silver or bronze for their purses, the Greek literally means for their girdles. The girdle, which the Jew wore round his waist, was rather broad; and at each end for part of its length it was double; money was carried in the double part of the girdle; so that the girdle was the usual purse of the Jew. Jesus told the twelve not to take a bag for the journey. The bag may be one of two things. It may simply be a bag like a haversack in which provisions would ordinarily have been carried. But there is another possibility. The word is pera(<G4082>), which can mean a beggar’s collecting bag; sometimes the wandering philosophers took a collection in such a bag after addressing the crowd.
In all these instructions Jesus was not laying upon his men a deliberate and calculated discomfort. He was once again speaking words which were very familiar to a Jew. The Talmud tells us that: “No one is to go to the Temple Mount with staff, shoes, girdle of money, or dusty feet.” The idea was that when a man entered the temple, he must make it quite clear that he had left everything which had to do with trade and business and worldly affairs behind. What Jesus is saying to his men is: “You must treat the whole world as the Temple of God. If you are a man of God, you must never give the impression that you are a man of business, out for what you can get.” Jesus’ instructions mean that the man of God must show by his attitude to material things that his first interest is God.
Finally, Jesus says that the workman deserves his sustenance. Once again the Jews would recognize this. It is true that a Rabbi might not accept payment, but it is also true that it was considered at once a privilege and an obligation to support a Rabbi, if he was truly a man of God. Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said: “He who receives a Rabbi in his house, or as his guest, and lets him have his enjoyment from his possessions, the scripture ascribes it to him as if he had offered the continual offerings.” Rabbi Jochanan laid it down that it was the duty of every Jewish community to support a Rabbi, and the more so because a Rabbi naturally neglects his own affairs to concentrate on the affairs of God.
Here then is the double truth; the man of God must never be over-concerned with material things, but the people of God must never fail in their duty to see that the man of God receives a reasonable support. This passage lays an obligation on teacher and on people alike.
The Daily Study Bible Series/the Gospel of Matthew Volume 1/Revised Edition by William Barclay
10:7-10 So Jesus said to them again: “This is the truth I tell you—I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If any man enter in through me, he will be saved, and he will go in and out, and he will find pasture. The thief comes only to kill and to steal and to destroy; I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
The Jews did not understand the meaning of the story of the Good Shepherd. So Jesus, plainly and without concealment, applied it to himself.
He began by saying: “I am the door.” In this parable Jesus spoke about two kinds of sheep-folds. In the villages and towns themselves there were communal sheep-folds where all the village flocks were sheltered when they returned home at night. These folds were protected by a strong door of which only the guardian of the door held the key. It was to that kind of fold Jesus referred in Jn 10:2-3. But when the sheep were out on the hills in the warm season and did not return at night to the village at all, they were collected into sheep-folds on the hillside. These hillside sheep-folds were just open spaces enclosed by a wall. In them there was an opening by which the sheep came in and went out; but there was no door of any kind. What happened was that at night the shepherd himself lay down across the opening and no sheep could get out or in except over his body. In the most literal sense the shepherd was the door.
That is what Jesus was thinking of when he said: “I am the door.” Through him, and through him alone, men find access to God. “Through him,” said Paul, “we have access to the Father” (Eph 2:18). “He,” said the writer to the Hebrews, “is the new and living way” (Heb 10:20). Jesus opens the way to God. Until Jesus came men could think of God only as, at best, a stranger and as, at worst, an enemy. But Jesus came to show men what God is like, and to open the way to him. He is the door through whom alone entrance to God becomes possible for men.
To describe something of what that entrance to God means, Jesus uses a well-known Hebrew phrase. He says that through him we can go in and come out. To be able to come and go unmolested was the Jewish way of describing a life that is absolutely secure and safe. When a man can go in and out without fear, it means that his country is at peace, that the forces of law and order are supreme, and that he enjoys perfect security. The leader of the nation is to be one who can bring them out and lead them in (Num 27:17). Of the man who is obedient to God it is said that he is blessed when he comes in and blessed when he goes out (Deut 28:6). A child is one who is not yet able by himself to go out and to come in (1 Ki 3:7). The Psalmist is certain that God will keep him in his going out and in his coming in (Ps 121:8). Once a man discovers, through Jesus Christ, what God is like, a new sense of safety and of security enters into life. If life is known to be in the hands of a God like that, the worries and the fears are gone.
Jesus said that those who came before him were thieves and robbers. He was of course not referring to the great succession of the prophets and the heroes, but to these adventurers who were continually arising in Palestine and promising that, if people would follow them, they would bring in the golden age. All these claimants were insurrectionists. They believed that men would have to wade through blood to the golden age. At this very time Josephus speaks of there being ten thousand disorders in Judaea, tumults caused by men of war. He speaks of men like the Zealots who did not mind dying themselves and who did not mind slaughtering their own loved ones, if their hopes of conquest could be achieved. Jesus is saying: “There have been men who claimed that they were leaders sent to you from God. They believed in war, murder, assassination. Their way only leads for ever farther and farther away from God. My way is the way of peace and love and life; and if you will only take it, it leads ever closer and closer to God.” There have been, and still are, those who believe that the golden age must be brought in with violence, class warfare, bitterness, destruction. It is the message of Jesus that the only way that leads to God in heaven and to the golden age on earth is the way of love.
Jesus claims that he came that men might have life and might have it more abundantly. The Greek phrase used for having it more abundantly means to have a superabundance of a thing. To be a follower of Jesus, to know who he is and what he means, is to have a superabundance of life. A Roman soldier came to Julius Caesar with a request for permission to commit suicide. He was a wretched dispirited creature with no vitality. Caesar looked at him. “Man,” he said, “were you ever really alive?” When we try to live our own lives, life is a dull, dispirited thing. When we walk with Jesus, there comes a new vitality, a superabundance of life. It is only when we live with Christ that life becomes really worth living and we begin to live in the real sense of the word.
There are two great temptations in the Christian life; and, in a certain sense, the better people are, the more susceptible they are to them. First, there is the temptation to try to earn God’s favour, and second, the temptation to use some little achievement to compare oneself with others to our advantage and their disadvantage. But the Christianity which has enough of self left in it to think that by its own efforts it can please God and that by its own achievements it can show itself superior to others is not true Christianity at all.
Parable of the Prodigal Son
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the part of the estate which falls to me.’ So his father divided his living between them. Not many days after, the son realized it all and went away to a far country, and there in wanton recklessness scattered his substance. When he had spent everything a mighty famine arose throughout that country and he began to be in want. He went and attached himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs; and he had a great desire to fill himself with the husks the pigs were eating; and no one gave anything to him. When he had come to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, and I—I am perishing here with hunger. I will get up and I will go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer fit to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.”‘ So he got up and went to his father. While he was still a long way away his father saw him, and was moved to the depths of his being and ran and flung his arms round his neck and kissed him tenderly. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger; put shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and rejoice, for this my son was dead and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to rejoice.
“Now the elder son was in the field. When he came near the house he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what these things could mean? He said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.’ He was enraged and refused to come in. His father went out and urged him to come in. He answered his father, ‘Look you, I have served you so many years and I never transgressed your order, and to me you never gave a kid that I might have a good time with my friends. But when this son of yours—this fellow who consumed your living with harlots—came, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ ‘Child,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me. Everything that is mine is yours. But we had to rejoice and be glad, for your brother was dead and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found.'”**
Not without reason this has been called the greatest short story in the world. Under Jewish law a father was not free to leave his property as he liked. The elder son must get two-thirds and the younger one-third. (Deut 21:17.) It was by no means unusual for a father to distribute his estate before he died, if he wished to retire from the actual management of affairs. But there is a certain heartless callousness in the request of the younger son. He said in effect, “Give me now the part of the estate I will get anyway when you are dead, and let me get out of this.” The father did not argue. He knew that if the son was ever to learn he must learn the hard way; and he granted his request. Without delay the son realized his share of the property and left home.
He soon ran through the money; and he finished up feeding pigs, a task that was forbidden to a Jew because the law said, “Cursed is he who feeds swine.” Then Jesus paid sinning mankind the greatest compliment it has ever been paid. “When he came to himself,” he said. Jesus believed that so long as a man was away from God he was not truly himself; he was only truly himself when he was on the way home. Beyond a doubt Jesus did not believe in total depravity. He never believed that you could glorify God by blackguarding man; he believed that man was never essentially himself until he came home to God.
So the son decided to come home and plead to be taken back not as a son but in the lowest rank of slaves, the hired servants, the men who were only day labourers. The ordinary slave was in some sense a member of the family, but the hired servant could be dismissed at a day’s notice. He was not one of the family at all. He came home; and, according to the best Greek text, his father never gave him the chance to ask to be a servant. He broke in before that. The robe stands for honour; the ring for authority, for if a man gave to another his signet ring it was the same as giving him the power of attorney; the shoes for a son as opposed to a slave, for children of the family were shod and slaves were not. (The slave’s dream in the negro spiritual is of the time when “all God’s chillun got shoes,” for shoes were the sign of freedom.) And a feast was made that all might rejoice at the wanderer’s return.
Let us stop there and see the truth so far in this parable.
(i) It should never have been called the parable of the Prodigal Son, for the son is not the hero. It should be called the parable of the Loving Father, for it tells us rather about a father’s love than a son’s sin.
(ii) It tells us much about the forgiveness of God. The father must have been waiting and watching for the son to come home, for he saw him a long way off. When he came, he forgave him with no recriminations. There is a way of forgiving, when forgiveness is conferred as a favour. It is even worse, when someone is forgiven, but always by hint and by word and by threat his sin is held over him.
Once Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners when they had finally been defeated and had returned to the Union of the United States. The questioner expected that Lincoln would take a dire vengeance, but he answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”
It is the wonder of the love of God that he treats us like that.
That is not the end of the story. There enters the elder brother who was actually sorry that his brother had come home. He stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner destroyed than saved. Certain things stand out about him.
(i) His attitude shows that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty and not of loving service.
(ii) His attitude is one of utter lack of sympathy. He refers to the prodigal, not as any brother, but as your son. He was the kind of self-righteous character who would cheerfully have kicked a man farther into the gutter when he was already down.
(iii) He had a peculiarly nasty mind. There is no mention of harlots until he mentions them. He, no doubt, suspected his brother of the sins he himself would have liked to commit.
Once again we have the amazing truth that it is easier to confess to God than it is to many a man; that God is more merciful in his judgments than many an orthodox man; that the love of God is far broader than the love of man; and that God can forgive when men refuse to forgive. In face of a love like that we cannot be other than lost in wonder, love and praise.
The Gospel of Luke, Barclay’s Daily Study Bible (NT).
** William Barclay’s translation.
A Bad Man’s Good Example (Luke 16:1-13)
Jesus said to his disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward. He received information against the steward which alleged that he was dissipating his goods. He called him, and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What am I to do? I have not the strength to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I will do, so that, when I am removed from my stewardship, they will receive me into their houses.’ So he summoned each of the people who owed debts to his master. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your account and sit down and write quickly, four hundred and fifty.’ Then he said to another ‘And you—how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A thousand bushels of corn.’ He said to him, ‘Take your accounts and write eight hundred.’ And the master praised the wicked steward because he acted shrewdly; for the sons of this world are shrewder in their own generation than the sons of light. And, I tell you, make for yourselves friends by means of your material possessions, even if they have been unjustly acquired, so that when your money has gone they will receive you into a dwelling which lasts forever. He who is trustworthy in a very little is also trustworthy in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If you have not shown yourself trustworthy in your ordinary business dealings about material things, who will trust you with the genuine wealth? If you have not shown yourselves trustworthy in what belongs to someone else, who will give you what is your own? No household slave can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot be the slave of God and of material things.”
This is a difficult parable to interpret. It is a story about as choice a set of rascals as one could meet anywhere.
The steward was a rascal. He was a slave, but he was nonetheless in charge of the running of his master’s estate. In Palestine there were many absentee landlords. The master may well have been one of these, and his business may well have been entrusted to his steward’s hands. The steward had followed a career of embezzlement.
The debtors were also rascals. No doubt what they owed was rent. Rent was often paid to a landlord, not in money, but in kind. It was often an agreed proportion of the produce of the part of the estate which had been rented. The steward knew that he had lost his job. He, therefore, had a brilliant idea. He falsified the entries in the books so that the debtors were debited with far less than they owed. This would have two effects. First, the debtors would be grateful to him; and second, and much more effective, he had involved the debtors in his own misdemeanours, and, if the worst came to the worst, he was now in a strong position to exercise a little judicious blackmail!
The master himself was something of a rascal, for, instead of being shocked at the whole proceeding, he appreciated the shrewd brain behind it and actually praised the steward for what he had done.
The difficulty of the parable is clearly seen from the fact that Luke attaches no fewer than four different lessons to it.
(i) In Lk 16:8 the lesson is that the sons of this world are wiser in their generation than the sons of light. That means that, if only the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his attempt to attain goodness as the man of the world is in his attempt to attain money and comfort, he would be a much better man. If only men would give as much attention to the things which concern their souls as they do to the things which concern their business, they would be much better men. Over and over again a man will expend twenty times the amount of time and money and effort on his pleasure, his hobby, his garden, his sport as he does on his church. Our Christianity will begin to be real and effective only when we spend as much time and effort on it as we do on our worldly activities.
(ii) In Lk 16:9 the lesson is that material possessions should be used to cement the friendships wherein the real and permanent value of life lies. That could be done in two ways.
(a) It could be done as it affects eternity. The Rabbis had a saying, “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.” Ambrose, commenting on the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his goods, said, “The bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows, the mouths of children are the barns which last forever.” It was a Jewish belief that charity given to poor people would stand to a man’s credit in the world to come. A man’s true wealth would consist not in what he kept, but in what he gave away.
(b) It could be done as it affects this world. A man can use his wealth selfishly or he can use it to make life easier, not only for himself, but for his friends and his fellow-men. How many a scholar is forever grateful to a rich man who gave or left money to found bursaries and scholarships which made a university career possible! How many a man is grateful to a better-off friend who saw him through some time of need in the most practical way! Possessions are not in themselves a sin, but they are a great responsibility, and the man who uses them to help his friends has gone far to discharge that responsibility.
(iii) In Lk 16:10-11 the lesson is that a man’s way of fulfilling a small task is the best proof of his fitness or unfitness to be entrusted with a bigger task. That is clearly true of earthly things. No man will be advanced to higher office until he has given proof of his honesty and ability in a smaller position. But Jesus extends the principle to eternity. He says, “Upon earth you are in charge of things which are not really yours. You cannot take them with you when you die. They are only lent to you. You are only a steward over them. They cannot, in the nature of things, be permanently yours. On the other hand, in heaven you will get what is really and eternally yours. And what you get in heaven depends on how you use the things of earth. What you will be given as your very own will depend on how you use the things of which you are only steward.”
(iv) Lk 16:13 lays down the rule that no slave can serve two masters. The master possessed the slave, and possessed him exclusively. Nowadays, a servant or a workman can quite easily do two jobs and work for two people. He can do one job in his working time and another in his spare time. He can, for instance, be a clerk by day and a musician by night. Many a man augments his income or finds his real interest in a spare-time occupation. But a slave had no spare time; every moment of his day, and every ounce of his energy, belonged to his master. He had no time which was his own. So, serving God can never be a part-time or a spare-time job. Once a man chooses to serve God every moment of his time and every atom of his energy belongs to God. God is the most exclusive of masters. We either belong to him totally or not at all.
** William Barclay’s translation.
Who Is My Neighbour? (Luke 10:25-37)
10:25-37 Look you—an expert in the law stood up and asked Jesus a test question. “Teacher,” he said, “What is it I am to do to become the possessor of eternal life?” He said to him, “What stands written in the law? How do you read?” He answered, “You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” “Your answer is correct,” said Jesus. But he, wishing to put himself in the right, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered, “There was a man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He fell amongst brigands who stripped him and laid blows upon him, and went away and left him half-dead. Now, by chance, a priest came down by that road. He looked at him and passed by on the other side. In the same way when a Levite came to the place he looked at him and passed by on the other side. A Samaritan who was on the road came to where he was. He looked at him and was moved to the depths of his being with pity. So he came up to him and bound up his wounds, pouring in wine and oil; and he put him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and cared for him. On the next day he put down 10p and gave it to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and whatever more you are out of pocket, when I come back this way, I’ll square up with you in full.’ Which of these three, do you think, was neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of brigands?” He said, “He who showed mercy on him.” “Go,” said Jesus to him, “and do likewise.”**
First, let us look at the scene of this story. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road. Jerusalem is 2,300 feet above sea-level; the Dead Sea, near which Jericho stood, is 1,300 feet below sea-level. So then, in somewhat less than 20 miles, this road dropped 3,600 feet. It was a road of narrow, rocky deifies, and of sudden turnings which made it the happy hunting-ground of brigands. In the fifth century Jerome tells us that it was still called “The Red, or Bloody Way.” In the 19th century it was still necessary to pay safety money to the local Sheiks before one could travel on it. As late as the early 1930’s, H. V. Morton tells us that he was warned to get home before dark, if he intended to use the road, because a certain Abu Jildah was an adept at holding up cars and robbing travellers and tourists, and escaping to the hills before the police could arrive. When Jesus told this story, he was telling about the kind of thing that was constantly happening on the Jerusalem to Jericho road.
Second, let us look at the characters.
(a) There was the traveler. He was obviously a reckless and foolhardy character. People seldom attempted the Jerusalem to Jericho road alone if they were carrying goods or valuables. Seeking safety in numbers, they traveled in convoys or caravans. This man had no one but himself to blame for the plight in which he found himself.
(b) There was the priest. He hastened past. No doubt he was remembering that he who touched a dead man was unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11). He could not be sure but he feared that the man was dead; to touch him would mean losing his turn of duty in the Temple; and he refused to risk that. He set the claims of ceremonial above those of charity. The Temple and its liturgy meant more to him than the pain of man.
(c) There was the Levite. He seems to have gone nearer to the man before he passed on. The bandits were in the habit of using decoys. One of their number would act the part of a wounded man; and when some unsuspecting traveller stopped over him, the others would rush upon him and overpower him. The Levite was a man whose motto was, “Safety first.” He would take no risks to help anyone else.
(d) There was the Samaritan. The listeners would obviously expect that with his arrival the villain had arrived. He may not have been racially a Samaritan at all. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans and yet this man seems to have been a kind of commercial traveler who was a regular visitor to the inn. In John 8:48 the Jews call Jesus a Samaritan. The name was sometimes used to describe a man who was a heretic and a breaker of the ceremonial law. Perhaps this man was a Samaritan in the sense of being one whom all orthodox good people despised.
We note two things about him.
(i) His credit was good! Clearly the innkeeper was prepared to trust him. He may have been theologically unsound, but he was an honest man.
(ii) He alone was prepared to help. A heretic he may have been, but the love of God was in his heart. It is no new experience to find the orthodox more interested in dogmas than in help and to find the man the orthodox despise to be the one who loves his fellow-men. In the end we will be judged not by the creed we hold but by the life we live.
Third, let us look at the teaching of the parable. The scribe who asked this question was in earnest. Jesus asked him what was written in the law, and then said, “How do you read?” Strict orthodox Jews wore round their wrists little leather boxes called phylacteries, which contained certain passages of scripture—Ex 13:1-10; Exo 13:11-16; Deut 6:4-9; Deut 11:13-20. “You will love the Lord your God” is from Deut 6:4 and Deut 11:13. So Jesus said to the scribe, “Look at the phylactery on your own wrist and it will answer your question.” To that the scribes added Lev 19:18, which bids a man love his neighbour as himself; but with their passion for definition the Rabbis sought to define who a man’s neighbour was; and at their worst and their narrowest they confined the word neighbour to their fellow Jews. For instance, some of them said that it was illegal to help a gentile woman in her sorest time, the time of childbirth, for that would only have been to bring another gentile into the world. So then the scribe’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” was genuine.
Jesus’ answer involves three things.
(i) We must help a man even when he has brought his trouble on himself, as the traveller had done.
(ii) Any man of any nation who is in need is our neighbour. Our help must be as wide as the love of God.
(iii) The help must be practical and not consist merely in feeling sorry. No doubt the priest and the Levite felt a pang of pity for the wounded man, but they did nothing. Compassion, to be real, must issue in deeds.
What Jesus said to the scribe, he says to us—”Go you and do the same.”
** William Barclay’s translation.
Gospel of the Other Chance and Threat of the Last Chance (Luke 13:6-9)
Jesus spoke this parable, “A man had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and did not find it. He said to the keeper of the vineyard, ‘Look you—for the last three years I have been coming and looking for fruit on this fig-tree, and I still am not finding any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the ground’ ‘Lord,’ he answered him, ‘let it be this year too, until I dig round about it and manure it, and if it bears fruit in the coming year, well and good; but if not, you will cut it down.'”**
Here is a parable at one and the same time lit by grace and close packed with warnings.
(i) The fig-tree occupied a specially favoured position. It was not unusual to see fig-trees, thorn-trees and apple-trees in vineyards. The soil was so shallow and poor that trees were grown wherever there was soil to grow them; but the fig-tree had a more than average chance; and it had not proved worthy of it. Repeatedly, directly and by implication, Jesus reminded men that they would be judged according to the opportunities they had. C. E. M. Joad once said, “We have the powers of gods and we use them like irresponsible schoolboys.” Never was a generation entrusted with so much as ours and, therefore, never was a generation so answerable to God.
(ii) The parable teaches that uselessness invites disaster. It has been claimed that the whole process of evolution in this world is to produce useful things, and that what is useful will go on from strength to strength, while what is useless will be eliminated. The most searching question we can be asked is, “Of what use were you in this world?”
(iii) Further, the parable teaches that nothing which only takes out can survive. The fig-tree was drawing strength and sustenance from the soil; and in return was producing nothing. That was precisely its sin. In the last analysis, there are two kinds of people in this world—those who take out more than they put in, and those who put in more than they take out.
In one sense we are all in debt to life. We came into it at the peril of someone else’s life; and we would never have survived without the care of those who loved us. We have inherited a Christian civilization and a freedom which we did not create. There is laid on us the duty of handing things on better than we found them.
“Die when I may,” said Abraham Lincoln, “I want it said of me that I plucked a weed and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow.” Once a student was being shown bacteria under the microscope. He could actually see one generation of these microscopic living things being born and dying and another being born to take its place. He saw, as he had never seen before, how one generation succeeds another. “After what I have seen,” he said, “I pledge myself never to be a weak link.”
If we take that pledge we will fulfil the obligation of putting into life at least as much as we take out.
(iv) The parable tells us of the gospel of the second chance. A fig-tree normally takes three years to reach maturity. If it is not fruiting by that time it is not likely to fruit at all. But this fig-tree was given another chance.
It is always Jesus’ way to give a man chance after chance. Peter and Mark and Paul would all gladly have witnessed to that. God is infinitely kind to the man who falls and rises again.
(v) But the parable also makes it quite clear that there is a final chance. If we refuse chance after chance, if God’s appeal and challenge come again and again in vain, the day finally comes, not when God has shut us out, but when we by deliberate choice have shut ourselves out. God save us from that!
Gospel of Luke, Barclay’s Daily Study Bible (NT).
** William Barclay’s own translation.
Like most people brought up in an evangelical home I did not at first know that there was any other way of thinking of the Atonement except in terms of God laying on Jesus the punishment that should have been laid on me… It seemed to me that the whole conception starts from the wrath of God, while the New Testament starts from the love of God. It was because he so loved the world that God sent his Son into the world (John 3:16). It was his love that God showed to us in the death of Christ for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Never in the New Testament, never once, is God said to be reconciled to man; it is always man who is reconciled to God. We plead with you, says Paul, on behalf of Christ, be…
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The Beginning of the Last Act (Matt 21:1-11)
21:1-11 When they had come near to Jerusalem, and when they had come to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent on two disciples ahead. “Go into the village which is facing you,” he said, “and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Loose them, and bring them to me. And, if anyone says anything to you, say, ‘The Master needs them.’ Immediately he will send them on.” This was done that there might be fulfilled that which was spoken through the prophet, when he said, “Say to the daughter of Sion, Look you, your king comes to you, gentle, and riding upon an ass, and a colt, the foal of a beast who bears the yoke.” So the disciples went, and they carried out Jesus’ orders, and they brought the ass and the colt, and put their cloaks upon them; and he took his seat on them. The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road. Others cut down branches from the trees and strewed them on the road; and the crowds who went in front and followed behind kept shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes. Hosanna in the highest!” As he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. “Who is this?” they asked; and the crowds said, “This is the prophet, Jesus, who comes from Nazareth in Galilee.”
With this passage we embark on the last act in the drama of the life of Jesus; and here indeed is a dramatic moment.
It was the Passover time, and Jerusalem and the whole surrounding neighbourhood was crowded with pilgrims. Thirty years later a Roman governor was to take a census of the lambs slain in Jerusalem for the Passover and find that the number was not far off a quarter of a million. It was the Passover regulation that there must be a party of a minimum of ten for each lamb which means that at that Passover time more than two and a half million people had crowded their way into Jerusalem. The law was that every adult male Jew who lived within twenty miles of Jerusalem must come to the Passover; but not only the Jews of Palestine, Jews from every corner of the world made their way to the greatest of their national festivals. Jesus could not have chosen a more dramatic moment; it was into a city surging with people keyed up with religious expectations that he came.
Nor was this a sudden decision of Jesus, taken on the moment. It was something which he had prepared in advance. The whole tone of the story shows that he was carrying out plans which he had made ahead. He sent his disciples into “the village” to collect the ass and her foal. Matthew mentions Bethphage only (the pronunciation is not Bethphage with the age as in the English word page; the “e” at the end is pronounced as “ae”; the word is Bethphagae). But Mark also mentions Bethany (Mk 11:1). No doubt the village was Bethany. Jesus had already arranged that the ass and her foal should be waiting for him, for he must have had many friends in Bethany; and the phrase, “The Master needs them,” was a password by which their owner would know that the hour which Jesus had arranged had come.
So Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The fact that the ass had never been ridden before made it specially suitable for sacred purposes. The red heifer which was used in the ceremonies of cleansing must be a beast “upon which a yoke has never come” (Num 19:2; Deut 21:3); the cart on which the ark of the Lord was carried had to be a vehicle which had never been used for any other purpose (1 Sam 6:7). The special sacredness of the occasion was underlined by the fact that the ass had never been ridden by any man before.
The crowd received Jesus like a king. They spread their cloaks in front of him. That is what his friends had done when Jehu was proclaimed king (2 Ki 9:13). They cut down and waved the palm branches. That is what they did when Simon Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem after one of his most notable victories (1 Macc 13:51).
They greeted him as they would greet a pilgrim, for the greeting: “Blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord” (Ps 118:26) was the greeting which was addressed to pilgrims as they came to the Feast.
They shouted “Hosanna!” We must be careful to see what this word means. Hosanna means Save now! and it was the cry for help which a people in distress addressed to their king or their god. It is really a kind of quotation from Ps 118:25: “Save us, we beseech Thee, O Lord.” The phrase, “Hosanna in the highest!” must mean, “Let even the angels in the highest heights of heaven cry unto God, Save now!”
It may be that the word hosanna had lost some of its original meaning; and that it had become to some extent only a cry of welcome and of acclamation, like “Hail!”; but essentially it is a people’s cry for deliverance and for help in the day of their trouble; it is an oppressed people’s cry to their saviour and their king.
Barclay’s Daily Study Bible (NT).