Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hungry as a Baby

I love a good sandwich.

There is just something about inserting a delicious piece of meat (yes, meat is required for any REAL sandwich) between two otherwise tasteless loaves of bread that suddenly makes the bread worthwhile. As I read Luke 18, I couldn't help but notice that there is a big fat sandwich right there in the text.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
Let the Children Come to Me
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called them to him, saying, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."
The Rich Ruler
And a ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.  You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'"  And he said, "All these I have kept from my youth."  When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."  But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.  Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, "How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."  Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?"  But he said, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."   Luke 18:9-28 ESV
Did you see it? The story of Jesus blessing little children is one of the more well known passages in the Bible. However I think we often look at this story without considering the immediate context in which it is placed. Just prior to the children we have a parable about a proud Pharisee, immediately following the children we have an encounter with a proud young ruler. Is this just a coincidence? Maybe it is, but probably not.

I also do not think it is a coincidence that the two proud ones mentioned would have been the cream of the crop in ancient Jewish society. Today so many of us have grown up with the image of Pharisees as the villains of the Bible that when they are mentioned we get the image of scowling bad guys twisting their mustaches as they plot against Jesus. However these were some of the most respected men of their community. The many additions they made to the Mosaic Law were to help the law become doable and accessible to the people. As other nations descended upon Judea, the Pharisees preserved their identity as God's chosen people. In many ways these were the good guys.

Likewise the rich young man would have held a place of respect in the community. At that time as well as today, Judaism focused primarily on blessing and curses in this life, and placed little emphasis on an afterlife. Those that became rich in this life without falling into obvious instances of corruption such as tax collecting were obviously blessed by God. The way this young man approached Jesus and the shock from the crowd when he is humbled strongly suggests that he was one everyone believed to be a righteous man blessed by God.

Between these two men are the children. In the midst of many accomplished and learned adults, Jesus tells us to receive the Kingdom of God like these children.

Now having a child of my own I am starting to see what it means to receive things like a little child. My daughter knows nothing of the nutritional content of her food. She doesn't know the process that we go through to make it for her. She doesn't see all the work we do every day to provide her with clothes and shelter. Despite her lack of understanding, she gladly accepts the things we give her. She does not eat to become stronger or more able than her peers, she eats simply because she is hungry. She does not put on a fake smile to impress others, but smiles because she sees my wife and I smile at her, and knows she is loved.

Please understand, I am in no way suggesting that we should cease all learning and not study the Bible in detail. God has given us much to learn as we grow. However as we learn we must be careful not to become so proud that we make the ways of God subservient to our ability to understand.

I will never understand exactly how God is able to bring a heart from death to life when His word is proclaimed. I don't know exactly how the gifts won on the cross are delivered in Baptism or the Lord's Supper. However I do know that on the cross Jesus died for my sins, and the sins of the whole world. He died for the very sins of pride and arrogance that occur when we try to squeeze God into our limited understanding. I know that for some reason, far beyond my understanding, He eagerly delivers these gifts to us.

There is a great deal of Pharisee and rich young ruler in all of us. We have all committed the same sins. Jesus is harsh with these men, just as He is often harsh with us, in order to break our trust in our own knowledge and to break our pride in our own accomplishments. He makes into little children that hunger for the bread of life that He gives. He makes us into people that trust and gladly accept his gifts, and know the warmth of His smile upon us.

May God take us all from Pharisees and rich men to trusting children in this time of Lent.