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21 June 2016

Day in the Life: Haman (Esther 7:1-10)

Day in the Life: “Haman”
Esther 7:1-10
June 19, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermons.net

“Let [the wicked] be caught in the schemes that they have devised” (Psalm 10:2).


Sometimes the good that would and should be done cannot be done until the evil that others have schemed is cleaned up.  I wish that were not a principle I see at work in many places and on many levels. 

When I was in college a buddy told of his grandfather who took a pastorate in a small town, but learned after he had been installed, that the previous preacher had run up debts all over town before disappearing.  So, this new pastor went all over town spending his own limited money to clean up another man’s mess so that they gospel might go forth unhindered.

When I counsel young couples I often take the young man aside and admonish him that there may be debts written on the heart of the young woman whom he loves; debts that others have run up on her that she may not even yet realize are there … debts that have a compounding interest over time.  Part of being a godly husband is a willingness to clean up another man’s mess.

Even this week I have been reminded of this principle of cleaning up someone else’s mess in the area of home repair.  I have remodeled each of our bathrooms this year—and it is always this way—but when I pull back the baseboard molding, or rip out the carpet, or update the lighting I invariably find that the previous “contractor” has jimmy-rigged something, or cut a corner, or hidden a mistake, or fooled the home inspector with a tube of caulk.  Now the thought process goes: “I am just going to cover that subfloor with new tile, so why go through the trouble of cleaning up someone else’s mess?”  Because that is what an adult does.  He makes it right as much as it is in his power to do so.  It is an expression of worship to God.

Today is Father’s Day and I admit that, like with Mother’s Day, I did not select the most appropriate passage to fit the holiday.  But there is at least this one piece of unintentional cross-over between our passage today and the ministry of fatherhood.  But it applies to mothers, too.  Let’s just widen it all the way out and say all adults end up cleaning other people’s messes sometimes.  I’m not just talking about the stack of 10 dirty cups in my son’s bedroom, but systematic messes that others have made through years of selfish decisions, pushing off “payment” to other people and future generations.  All adults clean up other people’s messes.  (And just for the record not all grown-ups are adults—not by a long shot.)

What we have today in our passage is a godly woman, and her godly cousin (who acted as her adoptive father), who risks her very life to clean up someone else’s mess.  We know her as Esther; her cousin is Mordecai … the setting is the ancient Persian empire at its zenith in the capital city of Susa (modern-day Iran) about 10 miles inland from the northernmost shore of the Persian Gulf.  But even though the woman Esther was famously beautiful, and her cousin Mordecai was famously brave, and the gardens in which they lived were famously luxurious, there was a snake slithering around named Haman, a high-ranking official in the government of Xerxes (Ahasuerus). 

It is a day in the life of Haman that warrants further observation and consideration.  But the story did not merely start in 480 B.C. when Xerxes returned back to Susa from a historically unsuccessful attempt to invade Greece.  And it did not simply start when Esther is crowned as queen in 478 B.C.  And it did not only start when Mordecai and Esther uncovered Haman’s diabolical plot to trick Xerxes into issuing a command to commit genocide of the Jewish people in 473 B.C.  Lots of drama!  

But to understand this day in the life of Haman we have to draw the timeline all the way back to King Saul, 500 years before and 1000 miles to the West, when he refused to do what God commanded him to do as king.  He refused to vanquish Israel’s enemy, Amalek.  Do you remember 1 Samuel 15:9 when Saul spared Agag, the king of Amalek?  It was the final straw that lost Saul the throne (1 Samuel 15:26). 

Fast forward approximately 500 years—Saul’s mess still lingered like a cancer-cell, festering in the dark.  Along some unexplained path a descendant of Agag migrated 1000 miles to the east.  And, as was historically patterned, the people of Amalek once again harassed the people of promise outside the land of promise.

Haman, the very first time he appeared in the book of Esther, was identified as “the Agagite” (3:1).  And he had, as so many Amalekites have over the years, an immediate and visceral hatred of the Jewish people.  The moment Haman learned that Mordecai—who uncovered an assassination plot against King Ahasuerus (2:22)—was Jewish, Haman came unhinged with 1000 years of irrational hatred (3:5).  Mordecai would not bow and scrap before Haman like everyone else did.  So, being the snake that he was, Haman hatched a scheme instead of a direct confrontation with Mordecai because he wanted to protect himself with the thin veil of plausible deniability … as all snakes do still today. 

Disproportionately more than just getting even with Mordecai’s slight against Haman, “Haman sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus” (3:6).  What was their crime?  They were Jewish—that is all.  Why did Amalek first attack the Hebrews when they were coming through the desert (approximately 1450 B.C.)?  It was an unprovoked attack.  Haman’s plot was also unprovoked and as anti-Semitic as the “Final Solution” cooked up by the Third Reich.  Why?  Because they were Jewish.  But why has this people group been singled out for destruction so many times in history?  It is because Satan is bent on derailing God’s promises.  God promised land, seed, and blessing to the descendants of Abraham through Isaac.  In Esther’s day, the land portion had been removed for a time.  The blessing portion had been removed for a season.  All that was left was the seed portion of the promise—so Satan attempted through his pawn Haman to kill off the Jewish people.  But God had another plan already in place.

Mordecai, when he learned of Haman’s conspiracy against the Jewish people, challenged Esther to use her access to the king to save her people—a feat that would gamble her life.  To displease the king in any way could earn death, even for a queen to speak to the king unsolicited.  All the same, Mordecai persuaded Esther to take the risk:  “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14). 

So Esther bravely broke with Persian custom and walked into the throne room unbidden (5:2).  Let that sink in—it is singularly heroic act.  It turned out, because God caused it to be so, that the king was pleased with Esther’s bold gesture and asked her what was on her mind.  She, not sure that she would even get that far, said that she wanted that evening to throw “a banquet” in the king’s honor, and she invited Haman as well (5:4).  During this banquet, with the help of some wine, the king asked Esther what else she wanted (5:5).  In a brilliant show of diplomacy she requested another banquet the following night (5:8) where she would make her request fully known.  The additional night of expectation would help a nervous Esther and give time for God to work on a now curious king.  This is where our consideration of a “day in the life” of Haman officially really gets interesting—between these two banquets. 

After the first banquet, in a particularly good mood, Haman strolled past the king’s gate where Mordecai was.  But Mordecai again refused to stand in honor of Haman’s presence—another departure in the Persian custom.  Haman’s good mood vanished.  He decided to build a hangman’s gallows in his own courtyard and hang Mordecai upon it in the morning (5:14) before going to Esther’s second banquet. 

Meanwhile, the king was unable to sleep—despite the wine.  So he asked for an attendant to read to him from the kingdom’s historical records—a surefire way to compel drowsiness to return.  There he “happen-chanced” upon Mordecai’s recent heroism in foiling the assassination against the king’s life; a fact that the king never properly celebrated.  So, conceivably in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, he decided to celebrate Mordecai officially although belatedly.  At the same, albeit unusual, moment Haman “happen-chanced” into the king’s presence to request permission to hang Mordecai that the morning.  But alas before he could make his deadly request the king commanded Haman to fetch Mordecai so that Mordecai might be properly celebrated.  Haman’s anger was thus further compounded by embarrassment.

Before Haman could figure out what to do with Mordecai—who was no doubt laughing at Haman from across the city—Haman was summoned to Esther’s second banquet, having not connected the dots that Esther was kin to Mordecai (6:14), a fact that she had concealed from everyone at Mordecai’s insistence … but only for a few minutes longer.

Though the sermon is nearly over, let us begin in verse 1 of Esther chapter 7—“So the king and Haman went in to the feast with Queen Esther.”  Knowing all that she knew, it must have been particularly hard to interact with the snake, Haman, as if he were a genuine nobleman and friend.  But Esther proceeded with her plan with great dignity.  “And on the second day, as they were drinking wine after the feast, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your wish, Queen Esther?  It shall be granted you.  And what is your request?  Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled’” (vs. 2).  Even though Xerxes might fly into a rage as he did with Queen Vashti (2:1), “Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated” (vv. 3-4).  Inviting Haman actually trapped him.

“Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has dared to do this?’  And Esther said, ‘A foe and an enemy!  This wicked Haman.’  Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen” (vv. 5-6).  The terrorist became the terrified just as the psalmist prayed, “Let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised” (Psalm 10:2).

It is a folly to insist upon a reality where there are no enemies.  There are enemies to the gospel, to America, to democracy; to our cities, communities, families, children, and even our own selves.  But God is our warrior-defender.  And God’s people—the people of faith in the promises of God—are out there everywhere everyday consistently, often thanklessly, cleaning up other people’s messes at their own cost.  People like Esther and Mordecai, like Amy quietly championing the struggle for our children’s education at the primary school, like Carol volunteering at the hospital, like Max and Evelyn praying for everyone from their barber shop, like Roger and Emily encouraging our missionaries without any fanfare; these—all of them, and so many others, “of whom the world is not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38)—are out there cleaning up other people’s messes so that the gospel might be advanced.

In a narrative that is full of twists and turns, just as the carpenters finished the gallows that Haman commissioned for the humiliating death of Mordecai the Jew, the king said, “Hang him on that” (7:10a).  “So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.  Then the wrath of the king abated” (7:10b).

So what do we do with this “day in the life” of Haman, the snake?  Well, we can see that our scheming will eventually become our own snare.  The righteous might not think it happens quickly enough, but “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).  But Esther and Mordecai do not sink to vigilante justice.  True, they faithfully and skillfully gave Haman enough rope to hang himself; but they did not take vengeance directly themselves.  They committed their cause, even their lives, to the Lord in line with what Paul will say many years later, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).  God worked through the system of government, corrupt though it was … it was wielded by God for God’s own good purposes.

Esther did not know if her life would be spared, but she risked it anyway in the attempt to rescue her people.  God doesn’t guarantee our survival, but he does guarantee our life—which is so much more than a beating heart.  Spend your strength, even your life, on the weak.  This is what a godly adult does; even if it involves—and it likely will—cleaning up someone else’s mess.  But notice, even though King Saul’s mess hung around for 500 years (and Mordecai and Esther were of the same tribe as he, Benjamin!), when God cleans up; it is done.  Haman’s whole household was handed over to Esther, who set Mordecai as head (8:1-2).  Agag’s line is finally finished.  If Saul would have just obeyed—even without a full understanding—then how many additional lives might have been spared, how many schemes might have been circumvented, and how much joy claimed instead of forfeited?  Esther and Mordecai, in a sense, got things back to even.

Are you a grown-up but not an adult this Father’s Day?  Are you systematically creating messes that you happily shirk onto others to clean, even across generations?  Don’t you ever wonder if there might be a better way?  Don’t you ever ask yourself, what does God think of me; of this?  Could it be that responsibility for your own actions is not the dead end that you have often imagined it to be, but the doorway to a life of maturity?  There is the King Saul way; the Haman way.  Or there is the Esther and Mordecai way—who started a new chapter in the story when they picked up the mop and cleaned someone else’s mess, not to fix the past, but to steer the present into the future that God has for them.


But the ultimate clean-up of other people’s messes is not Esther’s; it is Christ’s!  And we are far more guilty than Haman ever way.  But Jesus took all the mess of all the sinners—past, present, and future—and cleaned it up at the expense of his own blood.

08 June 2016

Day in the Life: Saul (1 Samuel 15:22-23)

Day in the Life: “Saul”
1 Samuel 15:22-23
May 22, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

The perfect day—I’ve never had one (nor have you, I presume).  Would I even recognize one if it showed up?  I’ve enjoyed many wonderful days that forever eliminate any right I might claim to complain, but the perfect day remains elusive.  While I know that a perfect day is impossible inside this envelope of skin and sin, I nevertheless think about having at least one perfect day here on la terra firma

Might there be a day when my bagel is precisely toasted; chewy yet crunchy?  Where the ratio between robustness, sweetness, and creaminess in my cup o’ joe is totally balanced?  When the breeze is coming from just the right direction, at just the right temperature and speed?  When the dogs resist rubbing their dusty noses on my slacks before work?  When I am pleasant toward my kids all day and they are toward me?  When my beautiful wife doesn’t have to waste her limited energy putting my dirty socks into the hamper?  Could there be a day when there are no airplanes shot out of the sky, no children going hungry, no couples suffering miscarriages, and no misinformation exuding from the government officials? 

I already know … one perfect day is not going to happen, at least not until Jesus comes back.  But really, all those “less than perfect” days are no one’s fault but my own.  I cannot blame else anyone for imperfection because I import that disease into each day myself.

But, buried back in the Old Testament, there was one day that seemed like it was close to perfection.  It is found in 1 Samuel 15.  The main character is King Saul.  And of all the days that filled his (approximately) 25 years (so far) as king of the unified tribes of Israel, perhaps it was this day that had a spot picked out on the trophy shelf of Saul’s mind.  He has not been a great leader, but on this day there would have been none to remind him of that fact.  Maybe his bagel was simultaneously chewy and crunchy.  Maybe the breeze was just right as he marched with his army from the field of victory back north into the Jordan Valley to the historically important site of Gilgal.  Maybe this was the day when he was pleasant toward his men and his men were pleasant toward him both in public and in private.  Maybe his nearly perfect day had more to do with the feeling that he had dodged a bullet; that he had gotten away with outmaneuvering his fate.   You see it was not too many months ago that Samuel prophesied to Saul—at this very location—after Saul was caught in a massive overreach of executive power, daring to do what only the Levites were permitted to do—to offer a burnt sacrifice (13:12).  Samuel the seer foretold into the listening ears of the nation, “But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).

Since then a new war has come and gone, but even though 210,000 soldiers marched at Saul’s command against one of Israel’s oldest enemies, the Amalekites, God narrated only one day.  At the very end of this war Israel was basically having an ancient version of a ticker-tape parade.  Of all the details that could have been mentioned, God focuses our attention on the one person who was not happy; the one person who was not smiling but crying out to the LORD for divine intervention and mercy (vs. 11)—Samuel.  You, Samuel, are you going to rain on my parade?  Are you going to spoil my perfect day?  But Samuel knows that this day is only superficially clothed in celebration; underneath is the stench of hypocrisy.  Saul was about to be exposed as a liar, a fake, and a sneak … and, as such, God has a bone to pick with him.

Let me briefly summarize what was happening so that we may unpack the climax of the narrative in verses 22 and 23.  The king of Israel was in a unique position; truly non-transferrable to any other king in any other nation in any other era.  God allowed, although he advised against it, the people to have a king.  But while the king of Israel was largely the people’s choice, he still received his job description from God.  The king was the visible representative of God’s invisible government; he would carry out God’s decrees as a vice-regent.  God is in charge—an office that he has never relinquished—and his human representative in Israel would execute God’s will nationally, and in some cases internationally.

Israel’s representative government was not of the people, by the people, and for the people, but of, by, and for God.  His monarchy involved receiving the word of the LORD through the prophets and the priests.  When God did not speak directly, the king would use wisdom based on previous revelations from God.  But when God did speak directly through the prophets and the priests, the king would listen and receive; trust and obey.  That’s it.  That’s the job.  The king was not an advisor to God since God has no advisors or counselors (Isaiah 40:13).  The king was merely the tip of God’s spear.  On this occasion God revealed to Saul through Samuel, without any room for confusion or interpretation, that it was time to judge Amalek.  “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have.  Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (vs. 3). 

Critics bemoan God’s severity—but what is more remarkable than God’s severity is God’s longsuffering (Romans 11:22).  He had pronounced doom on Amalek 400 years previously—longer than the USA has even existed.  They had all that time to repent, but did not.  In fact, they only continued to raid and trick and oppose and seduce Israel into their wickedness.  Now was the time for judgment.  God therefore mobilized his representative official in Israel, Saul, to carry out the sentence.  Deliberation was over. 

“Devote to destruction” is a specific term that God uses for his divine execution.  Whatever or whoever is pronounced to be “under the ban” is irrevocably surrendered to God—positively or negatively, but far more negative examples exist than positive.  For instance, when Jericho was conquered everything in the city was “devoted to destruction.”  When Achan stole and hid some of Jericho’s treasures in his tent, he brought God’s wrath upon not only himself and his family, but the entire nation of Israel (Joshua 7:12-13). 

This severity is something that some have tried to equate with the Muslim practice of jihad, but there is a crucial and insurmountable difference.  Jihad is a deed done in order to, perhaps, please Allah—from the bottom up, so to speak.  Devotion to the ban is a command performed at God’s direct order given to Israel’s legitimate king—from the top down.  It is within a legitimate government, within Israel exclusively, and held in tension under the checks and balances of God’s prophets and priests.  Jihad, on the other hand, exists outside of legitimate government channels, against Israel and Israel’s allies specifically, with zero checks or balances against the prophetic revelation.  All legitimate governments have the God-given prerogative to “bear the sword” (e.g. use lethal power; Romans 13:1-4), but only Israel acts at the unction of God himself.  I guess if you have a problem with it, you will just have to take it up with God.

So Saul was commanded—he had zero choice, because he had already agreed to serve as Israel’s king—to execute Amalek.  But Saul did not do as commanded as verse 9 notoriously recorded: “But Saul and the people spared Agag [the king of Amalek] and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them.  All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction.”  This was Saul’s sin.  Others participated but he bore the guilt because he was the head; the representative official to whom came the original command.

Saul decided that it was a waste to destroy everything—such treasure, such bounty—so him permitted discrimination.  He and they edited the script, adjusting the Bible where they saw fit.  They did, as Isaiah would lament years later, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (5:20).  This is our sin, too.

But, sadly … nauseatingly … it only got worse!  Saul attempted to hide, minimize, and redirect his sinful guilt with lying, maneuvering, and bargaining with God.  He tried—and we continue to try 3000 years later—to cover our sin with more sin.  But there is only one covering for sin—the blood of Christ!

“Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, ‘Blessed be you in the LORD, I have performed the commandment of the LORD.’  And Samuel said, ‘What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears?’” (vv. 13-14).  If it were not so tragic, it would be humorous!   Falsely friendliness was a poor disguise to Saul’s gross dereliction of duty.  Samuel is not fooled—there should be zero animal noises with the army since everything in Amalek was to be utterly destroyed on the spot.  It’s “their” fault.  Nope.  The motive was worship—we kept these few to offer as sacrifices.  Nope—God cannot accept that which he has already devoted to the “ban”—common knowledge.  I think of people today who rationalize their sin by saying, “Well, I’ll just drop an extra $20 in the offering plate next Sunday.”  Nope!  It doesn’t work that way.

Again, sadly … nauseatingly … it got even worse!  Saul “doubled down” on his lies and added slick maneuvering.  He tried to spin the truth in order to hide the truth.  Samuel called him out, “Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD?  Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?  And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD.  I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me.  I have brought Agag the king of the Amalekites, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction.  But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice the LORD your God in Gilgal” (vv. 19-21).  This time Saul tried to hide behind plausible deniability, but he only dug his hole deeper.  Plausible deniability might emit an innocent mistake; an underdeveloped interpretation of the constitution and the duties of a president—but “sin” takes this too far.  After all, the LORD “your God” demands sacrifice—note the pronoun usage.  Worship!  That’s what we were trying to do, in our own way.  You can’t fault us for trying, can you, Samuel?  Yes!  Yes, Saul, you are at fault for trying; trying to fool God and weasel out of a divine command.


I.          OBEDIENCE IS BETTER (vs. 22)

22 And Samuel said, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.”

Herein comes the climax.  It was not the parade.  It was not the decisive military victory.  It was not the monument that Saul had “set up for himself” (vs. 12).  The climax was the sin, or more specifically, the double attempt (soon to be triple attempt) to cover his sin from God instead of confessing his sin to God.  Years later, when David will also willfully sin against the LORD—an occasion eerily similar to Saul’s pattern—but David eventually took his sin to God for mercy, whereas Saul habitually takes his sin away from God in self-justification.  Self-justification—even the term itself is revealing.  I try to, but cannot, justify myself.

So Samuel briefly became the teacher in the middle of this awful conversation: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD?” (vs. 22a).  This was precisely the issue that lost Saul a dynasty back in 13:14—sacrifices.  But he still did not get it.  God did not delight in the sacrifices, but in the relationship.  The sacrifice entered because the relationship severed.  It would be far more delightful to God that the relationship never severs—or in other words, “obeying.”  Saul thought of sacrifice only as a ritual to get God to do what he wanted.  We think of prayer in the same broken sense today.  It’s not about the ritual.  It’s about the relationship.

Notice where this obedience ought to have been directed—“to the voice of the LORD.”  We obey revelation; not rationalization.  I am the one who changes to fit under the word; I don’t change the word to suit me.  The revelation of God, this day, ceased for Saul.  He will never again hear a word from the LORD.  Fifteen years later Saul will try, desperately and unsuccessfully, to restart a conversation with God and will even resort to a witch to act as a spiritual medium for him (1 Samuel 28:4-6).  But this was the day that privilege evaporated.

Saul had God’s revelation—a blessing that many people groups still do not have today—but he thought he knew better.  There is a famine, as the prophet Amos described—and it will only intensify as the days grow more openly evil—“Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11).  Saul had the voice of the LORD but he scorned and lost it, just like Esau scorned and lost his birthright.  David, by contrast, will sing, “Your Word I have hidden in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).  But Saul chucked the Word so that he might sin without a conscience.

“Behold it is better to obey than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (vs. 22b).  This is not a gray-area.  It is categorically “better” to obey than even the most elaborate sacrifices.  It is categorically “better” to listen than to offer to God the most expensive cuts of meat.  It is categorically “better” to follow in humility God’s will than to build an empire of our own making.  It is categorically “better” to trust in Christ’s grace than to self-improve my way into prominence.  If we attempt to use our hypocritical worship rituals as accomplices to our dance with sin, then we are treading on thin ice.  Worship is not about our sacrifice.  Sacrifice only starts when it stops being about worship.  Far better is the unbroken relationship with God than the sutures that temporarily sew it back together again.


III.        OBSTINANCE IS FATAL (vs. 23)

23 “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.”

The picture that Samuel painted was not at all flattering to Saul, but it would be a grievous mistake to separate ourselves too far from Saul.  We are just as foolish, rebellious, and presumptive to attempt to cover, justify, or redefine our sin in any way or to any degree apart from pleading in faith for the covering of our sin by the blood of Christ.  Guilt cannot be cleansed without Christ.  Shame cannot be reversed without Christ.  Death cannot be averted without Christ.

Samuel gave two word pictures to drive his point home.  “For rebellion is as the sin of divination and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry” (vs. 23a)—or in other words: witchcraft and willful obstinance.  These were not random words; they were silver bullets that were meant to pierce the armor of Saul and bound him to other national sins in Israel’s past … of course, delivered in the hope of stirring Saul toward repentance.

“Rebellion” is not just a toddler’s discovery of the word, “No.”  Quite the contrary, “rebellion” is the same word that gave name to the place of Israel’s refusal to listen to Moses and obey the revealed will of the LORD (Hb. meri)—rebellion against God specifically.  It was at the waters of Meribah that the people grumbled against the LORD and Moses struck the rock twice, though God said to strike it only once, thus losing his ticket to the Promised Land.  “‘Listen now you rebels; shall we bring forth water out of this rock.’  Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly.  But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’  Those were the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel contended with the LORD, and He proved Himself holy among them” (Number 20:10-13). 

Saul—you wished to be legendary, behold you will be not famously remembered but infamously.  Your rebellion—however well you mask it—accomplished the same net result as divination (occultic consultation of a spiritual medium).  God gave you direct revelation and you scorned it to listen instead to another source of truth—in your case, your own self and your men.

The second silver bullet, and the place where we must begin our conclusion, was the word, “presumption” (ESV) … which is translated as “insubordination” in the NASB and “stubbornness” in the NKJV (Hb., pa’al).  In this normal form, pa’al means “to push,” but in this intensified form (hiphil) it means “to cause to push; to push back or push away deliberately.”

Saul, you pushed back against God’s direct leadership while acting as God’s representative vice-regent.  Saul, while you were “on the clock,” so to speak, you misused your office to deliberately mislead the people of Israel.  The net result was nothing short of “iniquity and idolatry” (vs. 23a).  You obeyed another source of guidance, which is at the heart of all idolatry.  “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king” (vs. 23b).  Though Saul pled for a pardon, the gavel already dropped.  Conscious rejection of the word is conscious rejection of the LORD.


It cannot be coincidental, about fifteen years later, that Saul in a desperate ploy to hear from God actually consulted a witch and practiced the divination that Samuel alluded to metaphorically (1 Sam 28:8-19).  And it cannot be coincidental that Saul, when he was wounded in battle and yet unable to take his own life, was finally killed by, yes, one of the Amalekites that he has let escape in his disobedience to the LORD’s command (2 Samuel 1:8-10).  This was not impersonal karma; this was the wrath of a personal God.  “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

17 May 2016

Day in the Life: Demoniac (Luke 8:25-39)

Day in the Life: “Demoniac”
Luke 8:25-39
May 15, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).


Fear, anger, and the balance of power are bound together.  If we find that we are angry, the first question to answer is: “What do we fear?”  If we find that we are fearful, the next question to answer is: “Who or what holds the power in our lives?”  If we find that we have no or lessening power, the last question is: “Why does that make us angry?”  Which brings it full cycle.  Fear, anger, and the balance of power are not bad things—they are good gifts given to show us the condition of our otherwise unobservable heart.  But fear, anger, and the balance of power are often misunderstood, avoided, suppressed, and misdirected.  Today’s passage highlights, in particular, the fear.

Regardless of what Roosevelt famously said—“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—sometimes there is more to fear than fear itself.  The object of our fear can be actual, external, and evil.  And on some days that which we fear the most stares at us in full daylight.  This was the situation on one particular day in the life of Jesus.  Although Jesus himself was not afraid, everyone else in the story exhibited intense fear. 

I count no less than four kinds of fear in this one paragraph—reverence, dread, terror, and obedience.  Two are holy and healthy; two are not.  While we will sort out these kinds of fear as the narrative plays out in Luke 8:25-39, it is essential to realize that all fears inevitably collide with and reveal our view of God.  If a healthy view of God already exists in the heart, then the fear carries us closer to God.  But if an unhealthy view of God exists inside, then the fear carries us further from God.

That’s a huge concept—so, how can I illustrate?  Take, for instance, the 139th psalm.  King David wrote some of the most endearing words of all time: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me!  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.  You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:1-5).   For David, who has a healthy view of God, this inescapable nature of God’s omnipresence was a comfort: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain it….  I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works, my soul knows it very well (Psalm 139:6, 14).  But for others who might harbor an unhealthy view of God, God’s inescapable nearness and intricate knowledge are terrifying prospects.  “What do you mean God ‘discern[s] my thoughts from afar’”?  “What do you mean God ‘knit me together in my mother’s womb’”?  “I object!”  Fear often amplifies what is already present on the inside.


I.          THE DISCIPLES’ FEAR—HOLY REVERENCE OF CHRIST (vv. 25-26)

25 He said to them, "Where is your faith?" And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?"
26 Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.

Reaching back to the previous paragraph, let me briefly pull forward the first of our four observable fears—the disciples’ fear.  For professional fishermen who virtually lived out on the water in the darkness of the night, this storm must have been enormous in order to scare them to a panic.  So they woke Jesus up, who was amazingly asleep in the stern.  They begged him to help bail water.  But within their begging was a borderline rebuke for not caring whether they lived or died.  Jesus then spoke a word, “Peace,” and gave a command, “Be still,” and the raging waves and the whipping winds became perfect tranquil.  Notwithstanding, even though the outside was miraculously calm, the inside of the disciples became even more afraid than 15 seconds before: “Who then is this that he commands even the winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25)—and he is in the boat with us!  Theirs was genuine fear, but it was relationally connected to and directed at Jesus.  Therefore, this first kind of fear was a holy reverence.

Phobias exist all over the world—some are imagined, many are real, and several have been newly invented in the Western world; monstrosities like “Islamophobia.”  But there is one phobia that is immensely helpful and thoroughly healthy—the fear of the Lord.  More than any of the phobias that might be hurled at me, I am far more fearful of the Lord; a that fear rightly displaces all other fears.


II.         THE DEMONS’ FEAR—UNHOLY DREAD OF CHRIST (vv. 27-33)

27 When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.
28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me."
29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.)
30 Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Legion," for many demons had entered him.
31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.
32 Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.
33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.

The first kind of fear is holy reverence.  The second kind of fear is unholy dread.  “Immediately” (Mark 5:2) after this fearful event on the boat, the group arrived in the country of “Gerasenes” (which, if you imagine the Sea of Galilee as a clockface, is at 5 o’clock).  Thus continues this single day in the life of Jesus.  Gerasenes is in a predominately Gentile area—part of a league of ten cities called Decapolis that banded together in the Greco-Roman fashion for trade, culture, and protection.  As soon as Jesus stepped foot on the pebbly beach “there met him a man from the city who had demons” (vs. 27a).

I am not sure why it appears this way but demonic manifestations seem to be more prevalent overseas than here in America.  But my eyes don’t tell me what to believe; the Scriptures tell me what to believe whether or not my eyes ever see it.  And the Scriptures tell me that there is a raging war going on right now in the spiritual realm where God’s glory and man’s faith are under siege.  Even though Jesus by the cross has broken the power of sin, Satan, and death—the enemy and his hierarchical ranks of demons, together with world governments and corrupt religions, cling to the “real estate” that has been legally reclaimed by Christ.  They will not relinquish their haunts nicely.  Therefore, even though our church building is calm and cool and we sit in padded pews with our hands folded while some of our brothers and sisters drift off into a morning nap, the church is nevertheless engaged in open warfare.

Demons are just as active here as there and now as then.  The developed First World merely has different weak spots than the developing Third World … and demons hunt for weak spots.  Subsequently the ratio of overt to covert demonic activity adjusts to the environment.  Our weak spots exist in our rampant trust in money, our overdependence on medicines and doctors, our escapist tendencies that drive us into the snares of technology gadgets as well as chemical and sexual addictions.  Our blind devotion to our modern athletic heroes is disturbingly close to “religious.”  And don’t get me started about the personality cult that has become our political system.  The point is simple—today, demons still prowl around like roaring lions seeking those they may devour (1 Peter 5:8).

This man in our story was “devoured” by demons long ago.  What was the process that led him into deeper and deeper spiritual bondage?  We are not told the particulars but the pattern is often the same.  Trade a little liberty for a little more power, for a little more calm amid the debilitating waves of anger, or for a little better more shelter from the winds of fear.  But instead of delivering freedom and life, these false and demonic promises always only produce bondage and death.  At this point in the story, this man was virtually gone.  The demons controlled his mind, his body, and his soul.  He became the howling monster in the woods.

He once upon a time lived in the town like everyone else, but his demonic episodes apparently grew more and more frequent so that the town had him arrested and chained.  The people, likely his own kinfolk, “kept [him] under guard and bound [him] with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert” (vs. 29).  So eventually the plan shifted from arrest to exile—they wouldn’t try to contain him in the town, but repel him from the town.  There in the wild, Mark 5:5 tells us that he shrieked at the top of his lungs constantly and compulsively cut himself with sharp stones—wearing no clothes, occupying no house, dwelling among the tombs (vs. 27b).  Demons, no matter what their forked tongues might promise—even if they appear as angels of light (2 Corinthians 11:14)—hate you, hate Jesus, and hate the gospel of grace.

“When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’  I beg you, do not torment me” (vs. 28).  Whereas the people had trouble identifying Jesus as God’s Son, the demons did not.  But that doesn’t mean that they worshiped him—they loath Jesus but cannot deny his position or his power.  The demons “believe and shudder” (James 2:19) that God self-exists, but such was not a holy fear.  It was an unholy fear.  The demons fell down before Jesus, not to honor him, but to grovel and forestall their punishment.  “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29).  The future judgment is coming—all the demons know it, yet they will repeatedly try to prevent it (Revelation 20:7-10).  But on this day on this solitary beach they begged not to be confined to the abyss ahead of the Great Judgment Day as other demons had been confined by God for their especially heinous sins … once, at least, in connection with Noah’s evil generation (2 Peter 2:4-5; cf Genesis 6:4-5).

“Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ and he said, ‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him” (vs. 30).  A Roman legion was 6000 soldiers.  But a second time, the demons begged Jesus not to send them into the abyss, indicating that demons hate disembodiment.  And a third time they begged, this time for permission to enter a large herd of pigs.  “So he gave permission.  Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned” (vv. 33-34).


III.        THE DISTRICT’S FEAR—UNHEALTHY TERROR OF CHRIST (vv. 34-37)

34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country.
35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.
36 And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed.
37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.

The first kind of fear is holy reverence.  The second kind is unholy dread.  The third kind is unhealthy terror.  The entire district—“city and country”—heard the tale from the herdsmen who were close enough to see the exorcism of the demoniac.  So the people—“everyone” (Matthew 8:34)—went out to the very place that they were normally afraid to go.  “They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.  Then the people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found a man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind” (vv. 35-36). 

This is most peculiar.  What they had tried in vain to do with chains and shackles—to control this demoniac—Jesus did without restraints, without threats, and without violence.  They had achieved a semblance of control over this demoniac (and there were probably two demoniacs [Matthew 8:28]), but Luke just focused on the one who was the spokesman) but Jesus truly tipped the balance of power.  While they were frightened of the demoniac, even more so “they were afraid” of Jesus.  Jesus clearly had supernatural power.  He bested their boogey-man with a word.

It has been the common assumption that these townies were more concerned about their failed business prospect than about their rescued neighbor; and that may be part of the mix.  But all of the reasons that the gospels mention that unhinged the district have everything to do with this man’s deliverance by Jesus, not the loss of the herd of pigs, nor some veiled commentary about the non-kosher food supply chain.  They feared one thing—and their fear grew at an exponential rate—who holds the power.  In that respect, a nearby God is more terrifying than a remote demon.  The power balance has shifted and they no longer turn any of the knobs—that was what terrified them the most. 

Power, I believe, is woven into man’s insatiable appetite for idols.  With and through an idol, I still have some illusion of control over the uncontrollable elements of life.  I can build a shrine.  I can give a couple of gold coins.  I can sacrifice a pig every once in a while to get what I want.  But with Jesus, I have no pull. 

In my sanctified imagination I wonder if the townspeople had started to appease if not worship this demoniac with food offerings, with rituals, with religious deference.  Such is often the case with demon-possessed people in the animistic corners of the globe; they are revered as doors to the spirit world.  But Jesus has destroyed their equilibrium of power in one 15-second conversation.  Jesus has no weak points that I might manipulate.  He doesn’t need my worship, my gold coins, or my pig sacrifice.  He is absolutely superior, and I am undeniably inferior to him.  If my view of God is unhealthy, then this Jesus is terrifying.

Power is connected to fear, and fear is connected to anger.  We can see their anger in verse 37: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.”  This response produced one of the saddest half-verses in the Bible—“So he got into the boat and returned” (vs. 37b).  “Leave me alone Jesus!  I beg you, go away.”  If you have ever thought or said that—repent!  Take it back.  Strike if from the record.  Invite Jesus to come back, and stay!


IV.        THE DEMONIAC’S FEAR—HEALTHY OBEDIENCE TO CHRIST (vv. 38-39)

38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying,
39 "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.

The first fear is holy reverence.  The second is unholy dread.  The third is unhealthy terror.  And the fourth is healthy obedience.  “The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’  And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him” (vv. 38-39).

Notice the repetition of begging, and its synonyms, throughout this passage.  The disciples begged Jesus to help.  The demons begged Jesus not to torment them.  The district begged Jesus to depart from them.  And finally, the healed demoniac begged to follow Jesus as a disciple.  Whichever way our heart is inclined, we beg the most for what we value the most.

For this man, the initial answer is “No.”  But that “No” gave way to a “Yes” to a different kind of mission.  I already have 12 disciples; I do not need more at this time.  But right now I have no evangelists; especially to the Gentile-sections of the Trans-Jordan region.  So, I want you to stay and proclaim what God has done for you throughout the entire league of ten cities known as the Decapolis (vs. 39, cf Mark 5:20).  This man, like all Christians, was set free from his chains so that he might freely serve others in Christ’s name.  He, having been granted a healthy fear of Christ, obeyed immediately and passionately.  To put a spin on verse 25—who then is this that even the demons and the demoniac obey him?

In a very real sense, in light of other passages that deal with the demonic, even though “Legion” is no longer possessing the man the demonic bondage was still very much present in the Gerasene region.  Listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4: “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”  In other words, the people of the entire district—although they long looked down upon the demoniac—were actually worse off than the demoniac at the end of this pivotal day because they sent away their only hope for deliverance whereas the healed demoniac was delivered and sent out by the one and only, blessed hope, Jesus Christ. 


Where do you stand today with Jesus?  There are only two options—with Christ in belief or against Christ in disbelief.  The demons don’t care if you believe in them; they just don’t want you to believe in Him.  Jesus has the power to break the overt and covert chains of demons—and it is applicationally appropriate to include some of our modern addictions and compulsions.  So, call out to Jesus!  For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, even if he is buried under 6000 demons and years of terrible decisions.

10 May 2016

Day in the Life: Woman (Luke 7:36-50)

Day in the Life: “Woman”
Luke 7:36-50
May 8, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

“Wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

I seriously doubt that Hallmark Inc. would allow any American to forget that today, the second Sunday in May, is Mother’s Day.  In 1905 Anna Jarvis thought of establishing a holiday as a way to honor her mother’s death.  She called it Mother’s Day—with the explicit use of the singular possessive to celebrate the mother in each household instead of the plural possessive denoting all mothers everywhere.  Mother’s Day first became a local holiday in 1908, then a state holiday (West Virginia) in 1910, before it gained national attention in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson named the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day.

But an ironic twist inserted itself into Jarvis’ story in the early 1920s when Hallmark started selling Mother’s Day cards.  This commercialization bothered Jarvis so much—that it exploited her original idea—that she officially boycotted the very holiday she created and threatened litigation against Hallmark.  That irritation fomented and turned Jarvis from sentimentalist to activist at a candy makers’ convention in Philadelphia in 1923.  But there was no turning back for Jarvis’ new campaign, that is, not until she was arrested in 1925 for disturbing the peace over the sale of carnations, which had by then become associated with Mother’s Day.  Jarvis’ holiday has been adopted by many countries all over the world.

There’s just no pleasing some people.  Do you have several immediate examples that corroborate that statement in your own life?  I know I can think of several examples without even trying hard.  There’s just no pleasing some people--that emotional launch-pad is the place from which today’s passage ignites.  

Almost shaking his head at the disturbing humor of it all, Jesus says, “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation?  … ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not weep’” (Luke 6:31, 32).  Or as we have already phrased it: there’s just no pleasing some people.  His explanation is simple—“John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine,” and the people say, “He has a demon” (Luke 7:33).  But the same people, out of the other side of their mouth, say about Jesus, “Look at him!  A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).  There’s just no pleasing some people.

Now, on the very heels of that stinging cultural indictment, Jesus interacts with two actual people who give real faces to the debate.  Not just “the Pharisees” in general, now Jesus demonstrates the unpleasable nature of one particular Pharisee named Simon.  And not just so-called “sinners” in general, now Jesus demonstrates the hidden humanity of one particular “sinner”—although we don’t know her name.  She was a woman of “ill repute” who has repented and believed in Jesus, but who still carries the social stigma of being a former prostitute.  But before this single day is over, Jesus will turn on its head the whole, faulty, cultural classification about who is the sinner and who is the saint.

I.          PRESSUMED A SINNER (vv. 36-39)

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table.
37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment,
38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.
39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner."

Moral presumptions are often wicked.  Sometimes without a single shred of evidence a person might be labeled as a “sinner” or a “reprobate.”  Sometimes conclusions are draw based on plenty of evidence, but too often we make moral presumptions based on hearsay.  But here are some truly bad dudes out there.  Alas, “badness” comes in many forms … even the moralistic sort.  Let me illustrate:

A local busy-body noticed a certain church-going man’s pickup was parked outside the local saloon all night long.  Morally outraged, she went to confront him after he got home from work but not before first telling many fellow busy-bodies—“under the strictest of confidences,” of course—about the scandal that was brewing.  But the confrontation was virtually one-sided and unquestionably short as the man neither confirmed nor denied anything the busy-body accused except to agree, in general, that his pickup was relatively unique.   Feeling like she scored a moral victory, she went home and, although it was still early, she slept soundly through the night.  But when she woke up the next morning she was mortified to find that same unique-looking pickup parked in her driveway—apparently sitting there empty all night long.

We make moral presumptions all the time.  But in the case of our anonymous woman in Luke 7, the moral presumptions are true.  Or technically, they were true.  She was openly known as a courtesan.  That point is neither denied nor disputed by her or Jesus.  But the moral presumptions about her fail to take into account a genuine conversion—repentance and faith in Jesus; a brand new start.  In a day, in a moment she believed.  She took Jesus as his word.  Within this very context, on this very afternoon as recorded in Matthew 11:28 (Warren Wiersbe, “Luke 7:36-39,” The BE New Testament Commentary Series), Jesus gave an unprecedented invitation to all in Capernaum, and to billions of humans since then all over the world, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  She literally obeyed.

She was heavy laden, she wanted and needed and found the rest that Jesus promised through belief.  Accordingly, she came to him at first opportunity—while he sat at a private yet open-aired dinner party, but not before first going back to her quarters and pocketing her precious stash of perfume.  She had a plan; a plan for worship.

Her non-verbals speak very loudly.  She was a woman of the night, mostly set apart from the public.  But on that pivotal evening she ventured into a well-lit and well-populated area with her earthen jar of perfume; a symbol of her trade.  Her perfume would have been used for wrong reasons every other evening before this evening, but this evening she intends to use her perfume for good.  Very expensive to make, outrageous to transport, and extravagant to use, she pours her treasured perfume to honor her Savior as a token of gratitude and admiration.  The aroma would quickly overwhelm the room; maybe even wafting into the street.  Perfume normally anoints the head, but our heroine seems unable to lift up herself up off the floor out of humility concentrating only on his feet.

Her gesture is a rich one; highly symbolic, textured, meaningful, and shockingly personal.  It shows that there would be no going back into her trade.  She is burning her bridges once and for all.  Sometimes the shape of faith is a burnt bridge.  It reminds me of the time when the Ephesian converts from the magical arts publicly burned their books of spells (Acts 19:19).  And just as such devotion caused a riot in Ephesus, this woman’s devotion causes a riot in the heart of the Pharisee named Simon; the host who has lost control of his dinner party. 

Simon looks at this fragrant display of affection through his moral presumptions and concludes that it is both off-color and strong evidence that Jesus is not the “Great Prophet” that the people say he is (Luke 7:16).  In his heart he condemns both the woman and Jesus saying: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (vs. 39).

Simon is 100% about labels—sinner and saint; in or out.  That is the basic unit of Simon’s empire.  But Jesus is from another kingdom.  In Simon’s own mind he is the judge, jury, and prosecutor of others.  His verdict is iron: he is the saint, the woman is the sinner, and it doesn’t look good for Jesus because he obviously knows less than he should.  But Jesus knows something that Simon doesn’t know.

I’m not saying that moral presumptions are always inaccurate, but I am suggesting that moral presumptions usually fail to factor in the possibility of a genuine conversion.  So, I am here to testify that God did and does and will change lives; he brings the dead to life and leads the lost home again.

Before the moment passes, it is important to say—and to say in no uncertain terms—that we are not made right with God or kept right with God based on our moral behavior (like the Pharisees believed, as well as too many in our Christian pulpits and pews).  Moral behavior has its place in the discussion of a Christian ethic, but it is never the gateway into Christianity just as it is never the basis of a right relationship with God.  It is the end of the train only.  The engine of the train is, and always will be, only belief in Jesus.  Belief in Jesus is the way we are made right with God.  Belief in Jesus changes us on the inside.  Belief in Jesus imparts a miraculously new heart.  When our new heart begins to beat a new morality pulses through our lives, but never the other way around.  We can counterfeit a “renovated” morality without getting a new heart through faith—that is exactly what Simon is doing—but biblical righteousness cannot be counterfeited.  Though it may fool men, it does not fool or please God (Hb 11:6).

What this culturally misunderstood woman is demonstrating is that faith has already started to change her.  She is already starting to show signs of life—gratitude, worship, courageous love.  Her tears and gratitude do not save her; they show that she has been saved.

II.         PROCLAIMED A SAINT (vv. 40-50)

40 And Jesus answering said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he answered, "Say it, Teacher."
41 "A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?"
43 Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt." And he 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 wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss 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 are many, are forgiven-- for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little."
48 And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
49 Then those who were at 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."

Indeed, Jesus is a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34).  The Pharisees lobbed this title at him as a grenade, but Jesus knows something that they don’t know.  Right now, around this table, he is befriending and evangelizing an unrepentant sinner … but it is not the woman anointing his feet with perfume and tears.  The unrepentant sinner is Simon.  But Simon’s blindness to his own sinful condition eclipses everything else.  Therefore, Jesus tells a story … because nothing “lowers the guard” like a story.

“Simon, I have something to say to you,” Jesus initiates.  “Say it, Teacher.”  Two debtors were in default with a money-lender—not a friend, but a loan shark.  Lending money with interest is actually forbidden between Jews, but it was frequently practiced nevertheless.  We don’t know the conditions, but we know that both debtors are unable to pay.  One owes the equivalent of 500 day’s wages (70 weekly paychecks); the other 50 day’s wages (7 weekly paychecks).  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics for the first quarter of 2016 lists the median, weekly, take-home pay for Americans at $830 ($912 for men, $750 for women).  So, just for illustration, one person owed the Paycheck-Advance Loan Sharks—not even factoring in an interest rate—$58100 and the other owed $5810.  But both were in default; neither could repay.  However, surprisingly, the money-lender cancelled (forgave) both debts as an expression of his own generosity—not a new payment plan, the debts were just cleared.  So—“Which of them will love him more?” Jesus asks.  “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt” (vs. 43a).

Simon, who has been making poor judgments all day and conceivably for many years, gets this one is right for a change: “You have judged rightly” (vs. 43b).  But the lesson is not over—“Do you see this woman?”  Whether Simon is just being rude or means it as a malicious dig against Jesus covered up by plausible deniability, all the hospitable things that normally would have been done for an honored guest but were left undone to Jesus, she has done.  She washed his feet with her tears.  She dried them with her hair.  She gave kisses of welcome.  And she even supplied her own perfume as oil.

Simon has presumed that she is the sinner and he is the saint, but in the light of Jesus his true colors show forth unflatteringly.  Jesus addresses Simon here, not the woman—“Therefore I tell you [Simon], her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.  But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (vs. 47).  Simon, you have much to learn about forgiveness from her; your heart is exposed by your lovelessness.

Turning to the woman: “And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’” (vs. 48).  Technically, “Your sins remain released” (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament).  If there were ever a reason to throw a party, this would have been it!  A daughter who was lost has been found.  A sister who was functionally dead has been raised to life.  But no!  There is no joy around that dinner table, only outrage.  “Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’” (vs. 49).  They are now as exposed as Simon their friend.  Paying them no attention, Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (vs. 50a).  Not your tears, not your gift of perfume, but your faith has saved you!  No matter how these men might label you, I publicly proclaim you in their hearing a saint!

So, what’s next?  The only imperative in the entire conversation: journey forward into the peace that I have set before you (vs. 50b).  Simon and company cannot move forward in their stories; they cannot step into the peace of God because they have decided to play judge and jury over God.    They cling to their presuppositions to their own demise even when forgiveness and peace sits at the table with them.   They only look backward.  But Jesus looks forward.  With dead religion, you only have a past; a non-glorious past for sure.  But with the living Savior, we get a past, present, and future gloriously peaceful.


Jesus can pardon all, but does not pardon any who refuse it through disbelief.  There’s just no pleasing some people.  But by Jesus’ forgiveness, covered by his righteousness, we are made pleasing to God.  Only God decides who is a saint and who is a sinner—the continental divide is not behavior, but belief.  Believe in Jesus and go into the peace that God has provided for you.