“That’s not fair.” How many times do parents hear that battle cry? “Susie’s piece is bigger than mine.” “Johnny got to play on the Xbox longer than me.” “Why does he get to sit in the best seat?” “She got ten M&Ms and I only got nine.” It’s exasperating. Parents love it when the kids are old enough that you can tell one to cut and the other gets to choose first. It’s a great way to find out how good a doctor your child will grow up to be when he divides the cake with the precision of a neurosurgeon. But fairness in life isn’t often that easy to achieve. A divorced mom has to juggle two jobs and kids in a small apartment, while her ex bums around and doesn’t help financially. A baby is born with downs syndrome. A husband dies a month after retirement. A young girl is abused and is left dealing with emotional scars. One person deals with setbacks and failures, while another succeeds and has it easy. Some people are richer, skinner, taller, smarter, better looking, life’s just not fair. Parents tell that to their kids all the time, but it starts to ring a bit hollow when it’s not cake we are talking about but real life. And when life isn’t fair it can start to breed envy, jealousy, bitterness, anger, depression and a host of other diseases of the soul.
We all have different tolerance levels for different things. Some of us are able to tolerate high levels of pain, others not so much. Some of us are gluten tolerate, some gluten intolerant. Some of us do better than others with lack of sleep. Some of us are perfectionists and can’t tolerate things that are out of order or messed up. Some of us tolerate crowds or lines better than others. Some us are very disappointed with life, with the gap between what we hoped for and what we have. The parable of the wheat and the weeds says we are going to have to develop a certain kind of tolerance in a world full of lots of sin and evil, full of disappointment and disillusionment, to deal with the dissonance of life. If God is good and loving, why is there evil? Why doesn’t everyone who hears the gospel believe? Why does the church struggle in this world? Why is there conflict and discord in churches and denominations? As great a man as John the Baptist got disillusioned about Jesus. When Jesus didn’t seem to be moving very quickly to exercise His power and judgment he questioned Jesus. “Are you the one or is there another one coming?” We get impatient with hurdles, obstacle, interruptions, setbacks, delays, and slow progress. This parable says the kingdom of God is present and real and growing. But the parable also says that it’s not going to happen the way some of us think or hope. This parable is going to take a bit of explaining. We would do well to follow the example of the disciples and seek to understand the words of Jesus.
People these days seem drawn to books about near-death experiences. There’s a certain curiosity and fascination with the afterlife. I don’t trust those books. It would be much more spiritually fruitful to consider this story of not just a near death experience but a total death experience. Here Jesus pulls back the curtain to give us insight into the ultimate human reality. This passage of Scripture is unique in all the Bible as the only place where the feelings of those in hell are described. Remember the context. Jesus was confronting Pharisees. Luke 16:13-14 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” 14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. Obviously Jesus hit a nerve. The Pharisees were people who lived double lives; they kept everything in two separated compartments. In one compartment, their religions compartment, they kept all their beliefs and rituals, going to church, praying, reading the Bible, obeying certain laws, talking nice, acting nice, all those things they figured would make them look good to God and others. In the other compartment, their secular or non-religious compartment, they kept their daily activities, their jobs, how they treated their wives, what they did on Saturday nights, their secret sins and prejudices, what they said behind people’s backs. Pharisees and people like them believed that the two compartments could be kept separate and didn’t have to have anything to do with each other. So they ridiculed and mocked Jesus for saying that you can’t actually serve two different masters, you can’t live two separate lives, one as a lover of God and another as a lover of money and things, one with God on Sundays, and another without God on Monday through Saturday. Jesus burst their bubble by showing that going to heaven has something to do with the connection between the two compartments. Our ordinary, daily lives, how we live and act in this world has a lot to do with where we end up.
This parable is different from many of the others. Jesus lets the cat out of the bag and gives the meaning before the beginning. To borrow an old saying, “He hangs the key by the door.” Jesus wants to stress the importance of prayer and the importance of perseverance in prayer. So rather than just saying it, He again resorts to that powerful teaching tool, a parable. This parable is sometimes called the parable of the unjust judge and sometimes the parable of the importunate or persistent widow. Importunate, now there’s a word you don’t hear much anymore. Importunate doesn’t just mean persistent but persistent to the point of annoyance or intrusion. Stubbornly tenacious in the face of obstacles and opposition. Persistent like an unrelenting bill collector or a telemarketer caller. Persistent like a mosquito or a woodpecker. Persistent like a hungry baby at 3AM or a child full of why questions. Persistent like that pile driver on the Main Street bridge yesterday, relentless pounding. Jesus tells a parable in which a widow woman gets what she wants from an unfair, cruel judge because she refused to stop asking and persisted in her unrelenting request. It’s about as simple as a parable can get, and yet this parable is a challenging one and it takes some care to glean from it the truth Jesus teaches. There are several dangers in interpreting this parable. Jesus intends this parable to be a contrast not a comparison. There’s a big difference between a wicked judge who unwillingly finally gives in and our merciful and loving Father in heaven who delights to hear our prayers and answer.
If you’re thinking this is one of those head-scratching passages in the Bible you aren’t alone. Almost every commentary I read on this passage begins the same way. John Calvin, “The parable seems hard and far-fetched.” J.C. Ryle, “The passage is a difficult one. There are knots in it which perhaps will never be untied, until the Lord comes again.” Leon Morris, “This is notoriously one of the most difficult of all the parables to interpret.” Michael Wilcock, “In the task of detecting Luke’s train of thought, many find this section one of the most difficult in the whole Gospel. The majority of commentators give up the attempt.” It shouldn’t surprise us that some passages are hard to understand, after all this is God’s Word and God is a good bit smarter than we are. Passages like this are meant to humble us and remind us that our understanding is finite and faulty. When you come across a passage like this, what do you usually do? Guess at it? Decide it’s crazy talk? Just skip over it and go on to something easier? Or do you study and dig for truth? And if you start digging how do you do it, where do you start? What’s the first rule of interpreting Scripture? Pray, pray, pray. These things are spiritual discerned and we need the Holy Spirit to open our minds and help us. What’s the second rule of interpreting Scripture? Context, context, context. A text without a context often becomes a pretext for a proof text.
There are many subjects and topics in Scripture that are profoundly personal and practical, some that get to the deepest places in our hearts. The subject before us is one of them, the forgiveness of personal injuries and offenses and sins against us. We live in a world full of sinners and sin. We sin and we are sinned against. It’s impossible to live in this world of ours and escape from being hurt, wounded, offended, insulted, slighted, ill-treated or just plain sinned against. I have said many times to engaged and married couples that it’s impossible to maintain a significant relationship without forgiveness. In every significant human relationship there will be sin. Relationships can’t survive without dealing with the sin that comes along. Not one of us in this room is so perfectly well behaved all the time that we never need to give and receive forgiveness. So to know how to deal with personal hurts and injuries and offenses is a great blessing and benefit to our own souls and to our relationships with those around us. Our text is about personal offenses and wrongs done against us which are in our power to forgive. This text isn’t about crimes, people who break the law must face justice and the consequences. Let’s begin with a simple definition. Forgiveness simply means not holding a person's sin against him. It means let it go. Because Christ has forgiven me, I will forgive him.
Years ago I went to lunch with a lawyer who worked for the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. My intention was to ask some probing questions about his spiritual life. But I never even got to first base. By the time the lunch was over I was the one being asked probing questions for which I didn’t have immediate answers. Some came to mind later as I was driving home. I can’t say for sure but I have a suspicion he did that to keep me from asking him questions. Lawyers are trained to ask hard questions, sometimes tricky questions and leading questions and questions that can get us tangled up and turned around. That was this lawyers intent. Luke 10:25-28, a lawyer’s first question. Jesus experienced numerous questionings by skilled lawyers and this one was a specialist in Jewish religious law. His particular question was on the minds of many in Jesus’ day. The Gospels record three separate occasions when someone asked Jesus this question.
Having Jesus over for dinner could be a very awkward affair. It was the Sabbath, the high holy day, a day of real feasting for the Jews. Jesus was dining as a guest of the ruler of the Pharisees. Around the table were Pharisees, scribes, lawyers, elders, important leaders. The meal had started with Jesus asking in the presence of an infirmed man if it was OK to heal on the Sabbath. Silence. So Jesus healed the man. Then he asked them which of them if their son or ox fell into a well on the Sabbath would they save him? More silence. Then Jesus told a parable about vying for seats of honor around the table and trying to sit close to the host. More embarrassed silence. And Jesus still didn’t give it a rest. He said to his rich host that he should invite not just friends and relatives but the poor and handicapped. How awkward is that? What do you say to that? We can sympathize with the poor soul who finally blurted out, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Have you ever put your foot in your mouth at a social gathering? Have you ever opened your mouth maybe to break the ice or ease the tension or to try to impress others, only to have it come out making you look foolish or arrogant? Have you ever tried to say something particularly pious and had it come off badly? Jesus had just said something about caring for the poor ending with a very brief statement about the reward at the resurrection of the just and perhaps to fill the awkward silence one of them fastens on to that last little thread about heaven. I bet he regretted that after hearing Jesus’ response.
The prodigal son represents all sinners. He is the poster child of sinners. He is the definition of a sinner. He is someone who takes what belongs to God and what is given to him by God and following the natural inclination of his own heart runs as far away from God as he can. This is us, this is our likeness. We are naturally bent to do whatever seems good to us, whatever brings us the most happiness or pleasure. We want to live for ourselves and have as little to do with God as possible.
Remembering important words is hard. Just ask Jesus. He repeated Himself over and over again to His disciples and they just didn’t get it. Our text this morning says that as they were getting closer and closer to Jerusalem they were thinking they were on the edge of Jesus establishing His kingdom on earth and they would get to sit on some thrones with Him. So once again Jesus the master story teller tells another story, warning about how things are really going to be.