Jesus' parables are mysterious. This is because the kingdom of heaven itself is mysterious. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is mysterious. It's in embracing the mystery of the kingdom of heaven that we come to an understanding of Jesus' parables. An additional key is reading the parables in their context. Matthew 18 profoundly demonstrates both of these lessons.
This lecture is part three of a four-part series on "Studying Jesus' Parables." In this series, I draw on my research for my book, Parables: Portraits of the Kingdom in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Jesus’ parables, we find a rabbi who will turn our world upside down. And that’s a good thing.
This lecture was delivered at The Table (a missional church plant in Bellingham, WA) on January 24, 2018. Get more talks like this one by subscribing to the Jesus' Economy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or SoundCloud.
Jesus was fond of speaking in parables. But why did he speak in these short, often confusing, stories? To understand Jesus' parables, we have to look at his first-century context and think of him as the rabbi that he is. We also have to make the commitment that Jesus asks us to make: We have to enter the journey with him; we have to follow Jesus the rabbi like his earliest disciples did.
This lecture is part two of a four-part series on "Studying Jesus' Parables." In this series, I draw on my research for my book, Parables: Portraits of the Kingdom in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Jesus’ parables, we find a rabbi who will turn our world upside down. And that’s a good thing.
Jesus' parables can be perplexing, to say the least. How do we interpret them? Before we can answer that question, we need to have a basic framework for understanding Jesus as a first-century rabbi. We need to understand Jesus as prophet, messiah, and savior. Here's that framework.
This lecture is part one of a four-part series on "Studying Jesus' Parables." In this series, I draw on my research for my book, Parables: Portraits of the Kingdom in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Jesus’ parables, we find a rabbi who will turn our world upside down. And that’s a good thing.
On the cross, Jesus felt the agony of the entire world, including those who feel voiceless in the developing world. He died for us, all of us, so that freedom from sin and all of its consequences could be accomplished; so that we may live in relationship with God once again. All we must do is choose him back (John 3:16), to cry out to Jesus.
"Yet Yahweh was pleased to crush him; he afflicted [him] (with sickness). If she [Zion/Jerusalem] places his life a guilt offering, he will see offspring, he will prolong days and the will of Yahweh in his hand will succeed. From the trouble of his life he will see light. He will be satisfied. In his knowledge, my righteous servant shall make the many righteous and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide to him [a portion] among the many, and with [the] strong ones he shall divide bounty, because he exposed his life to death and was counted with transgressors, and he carried [the] sin of many and will intercede for transgressors" (Isaiah 53:10-12, my translation).
500 years before Jesus, these words were prophesied. And in them is resurrection, for all of us. There is resurrection for the suffering in the developing world, who have placed their hands in my hands asking for prayer for relief from the pain. There is resurrection for the homeless man who I watched cry out "Jesus Christ my Lord," asking for salvation from his addictions. There is resurrection for me, the sinner who is only saved because of Jesus. There is resurrection for all of us.
Here, in the gospel according to the prophet Isaiah, I see a suffering servant dying as a "guilt offering" at the hands of his own people, Zion (or Jerusalem). I see a servant who does things that can only happen in life, after his death has already occurred: He sees offspring, prolongs days, and sees light. In these things he is satisfied, for he has accomplished the will of God.
I see resurrection here for all of us.
Jesus accomplished all the things in this prophesy. He is the suffering servant. In Jesus, I see hope for the entire world, including hope to overcome the pain being experienced by those in poverty in the developing world.
It is in Jesus that all things are possible (Philippians 4:13). In Jesus, one day, all things will be made new (Revelation 21). It is Jesus who can sympathize with our weaknesses and intercede on our behalf. It is Jesus who has overcome all.
Perhaps the author of Hebrews states it best:
"Therefore, since the children share in blood and flesh, he also in like manner shared in these same things, in order that through death he could destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and could set free these who through fear of death were subject to slavery throughout all their lives" (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Jesus has come to set us free. And we are given the opportunity to set others free, from spiritual and physical poverty. Let us live that message this day. Let us feel it. Let it be like the joy of Easter Sunday, the resurrection day, when we embrace the spiritual resurrection Jesus offers now and the resurrection of the dead when he one day returns. Let us live the resurrected life now.
(The views on Isaiah 53 in this post are based on my book The Resurrected Servant in Isaiah, published by InterVarsity Press, 2010.)
This article was previously published under the title, "Resurrection for All People, from All Pain, in Jesus."
At times, justice becomes a bit of a catch phrase, sadly even a cliché. Yet it’s one of the most important concepts we can understand and live. I have seen injustice with my own eyes, and each day the news tells each of us of acts of injustice. But rather than feel defeat, let’s stand up, take action, and do something about it. Here are four ways justice should be the cry of today’s Christian.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Jesus taking on our pain and anguish—and on the cross, we see him taking on our sin. Think about these four things Jesus says and prays in the Garden:
“Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
“My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.”
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will must be done” (Matthew 26:36–46 LEB).
It is here that we see the man—Jesus. It is here that we find one who walks alongside the downtrodden, the hurting, the poor, the outsider, the refugee, the sinner—all the way to the cross. Here we find the one who walks alongside all of us, all the way to the cross. Here we see God enfolding, through Jesus, all people into his kingdom. Jesus does God’s will, so that we can have life.
In the garden, Jesus asks if the cup can be removed from him; but not his will, but God the Father’s be done. Jesus realizes the burden he is about to carry. This burden is described in Isaiah (over 500 years before Jesus) as:
“By a restraint of justice, [the servant] was taken away and with his generation.
Who could have mused that [the servant] would be cut off from the land of the living? Marked for the transgression of my people.
And [Yahweh] set his grave with the wicked, and [the servant] was with the rich in his death, although [the servant] had done no wrong, and there was no deceit in his mouth
Yet Yahweh was pleased to crush [the servant]; he afflicted him (with sickness). If [Zion] places [the servant’s] life a guilt offering, [the servant] will see offspring, [the servant] will prolong days. And the will of Yahweh is in [the servant’s] hand, it will succeed. Out of trouble of his life [the servant] will see; [the servant] will be satisfied by his knowledge.
[Yahweh says,] ‘My righteous servant will bring justice to many and he will bear their iniquities’ ” (Isaiah 53:8–11, my translation).
As painful as it is, it pleased Yahweh that Jesus should go to the cross, for it is in this that God found not just ultimate obedience, but also the bridging of humanity with himself. The judgment of God for our wrongdoings was satisfied. Once again, we were put into right relationship with God.
It is in Jesus that we find the refugee on the cross. Here we find the guilt offering for all of our wrongs. Here we find one who carries our sin, bears our iniquities, and intercedes for transgressors. Here we find a restraint of justice bringing justice to those who do not deserve it.
But what will we do with this justice, with this freedom?
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. in his work from Birmingham Jail. And it is injustice that we see today—all over our planet.
Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. was working to bring equality by creating jobs. And yet, so much of the world still lacks jobs, because we haven’t completed the task. This is injustice.
We look around the world and we also see those who are oppressed—who lack spiritual and religious freedom, who lack knowledge of Jesus. This too is an injustice.
We must stand up, lift up, and rise up—to fight these injustices, boldly proclaiming that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We can read Jesus’ call to care for the “least of these” in Matthew 25:37–40 as a direct preface and parallel to what he will do on the cross. Jesus went to the cross to make us who do not deserve to be right before God, made right. And just before doing so, he calls us to live this message—noting for us that whether or not we did will be a primary question when he one day returns to earth.
So when we look around our world, and see a lack of access to basic healthcare, clean water, and jobs—like I have seen in the impoverished region of Bihar, India—we know that we must take action.
Jesus cries out for this. This is the Christian cry. And it is my personal cry, as I am personally broken for the hurting that I know in Bihar—for those who have placed their hands in my hands and cried out to God with me for justice.
We can also read the final words of Matthew’s Gospel, spoken by Jesus, as a commission based on his ministry in life, on the cross, and in his resurrection. And it’s a commission of action. Jesus says:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20 LEB).
Yet, there are still millions of people who have not heard Jesus’ name—again, this is the case in Bihar, India. In Bihar, there are 101 Million people who have never heard the name of Jesus. This again, is an injustice. All people deserve the chance to have access to the gospel.
The question becomes for each of us: What will we do about it? Why are we content with the knowledge of God, but not the actions of God? When will justice become part of the gospel? Because in actuality it is—we’re just not living it.
Do not walk away with guilt; walk away inspired to take action. Let’s continue the work of Jesus, the apostles, the early church fathers, and people like Martin Luther King, Jr. Let’s mark this season as the one everything changed, and we began to renew our world again with Christ, by his power and grace.
In John 13, Jesus and his closest friends gather together to celebrate the Passover. It is a scene of beautiful companionship. They are relaxed and uplifted by their engagement in the ceremony of the Passover supper. In their culture, it was an act of hospitality for a slave to perform the distasteful task of washing the guest's feet. But here in the upper room we get to witness something very special.
All of a sudden we notice Jesus rise from the table and break tradition by taking the role of a servant, of the lowest of the low. He takes off his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and fills a bowl with water. He stoops to wash the first of his disciples' feet, and then proceeds to do so for each and every one of them. Their feet are not clean as ours are. They are dirty, muddy, and probably smelly.
One Sabbath morning in Lae, Papua New Guinea, I encountered a foot washing experience that will forever stick with me. The church was decked out with tropical flowers in readiness for the communion service, and the worshippers were in their best clothes, wearing their big white smiles, and carrying their precious Bibles. Just as Jesus did for his disciples, each of the church attendees was to wash one another's feet. This was like no foot washing experience I had ever participated in. There was mud. There were flies. We were kneeling on leaves to try to keep our best clothes out of the mud. Many of them had no shoes, and those who did wore flip-flops. They trekked for kilometers over mountains, through streams, through red betel-spit stained puddles. Some had fungal infections. Many had sores. It was a uniquely humbling experience to wash the feet of, and have my feet washed by these beautiful Christian people.
Back in the upper room the disciples must have looked at each other somewhat sheepishly. Their master, their teacher, their savior was washing their feet. “I should have done that!” perhaps they inwardly rebuked themselves; Peter even said so (John 13:8). Just like the disciples, we too need to be humbled. Jesus took the first and biggest step of humility when he left heaven to come as the newborn babe of a poor girl, born in a manager, with a label of illegitimate hanging over his head.
Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-8, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
Let's look at the steps Jesus took when he washed his disciples’ feet. First, he took off his outer robe. What might this represent for you and I? Overcoming our pride? Casting aside selfish ambition? Stepping beyond our comfort zone? Allowing Jesus to remove our fear? Sometimes, the first step is the hardest to take, but if we don't take that first step, we may never learn the joy of service.
Second, Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and poured water into a basin. He prepared for the task at hand. This will differ for each of us according to what the Lord is calling us to, and our calling now might not be our calling next month, next year, or next decade. Perhaps we need to gain a certain skill or qualification (e.g., learn a new language or take a first aid course). Perhaps we need to purchase resources, do some planning, get together a team, or maybe just spend more time in prayer and Bible study. Whatever it is, we cannot just rush headlong into service. Just like Jesus, we need to take the necessary steps of preparation to be effective in our respective ministries.
The next step is what I like to call “see a need, fill a need.” Dirty feet need to be washed. Hungry bellies need to be fed. The illiterate need lessons. Those with illness and disease need medicine. Wayward teens need guidance. Abused women need a refuge. Corrupt governments need to be opposed. The list goes on and on. What needs do you see in your home, community, country, and world?
Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12 how each body part serves a unique purpose and yet is valuable and integral to the function of the body. Similarly, each one of us has different gifts, skills, and passions, and God designed us that way because he has a unique role he wants each of us to enact. Yet we all serve the ultimate purpose of bringing him glory. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Jesus is our example when it comes to dirty, muddy service. The disciples followed his example taking the gospel to the ends of the earth, being stoned, imprisoned, and even martyred for the sake of the gospel. So, what dirty, muddy service is the Lord calling you to today? Is it to help out in the local soup kitchen? Volunteer to wash the dishes after a church potluck? Serve in a far-off land whose President's name you cannot pronounce?
Whatever your call might be, just remember that Jesus too made sacrifices, Jesus too got his hands dirty, and Jesus too calls us to this dirty, muddy service.
I saw Jesus once.
Bihar, India, 2013. The room was hot and humid. As drops of sweat clouded my eyes, I looked at Kari—she sat at a table on the other side of this large concrete room. Gracefully, Kari moved her hands across the threads wound into newspaper clippings. The clippings were in the shapes of kids clothing; women in the room, one by one, were bringing clippings to her. My friend Biju leaned over and whispered to me: “She is testing them. She was once destitute, but through our empowering women program, she learned to be a seamstress and is now self-sustaining; she teaches these women to be the same.”
Looking into Kari’s eyes as she worked, I realized that this is what Jesus, the carpenter, does. This is Jesus, working through her.
At the final judgment, when the world as we know it will reach its end, Jesus says he will say:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:34–40 ESV).
“Lord, when did we see you?” “Here, here, and here,” he essentially says, “among these people, everywhere. That’s where I was and that’s where I am.”
“I am,” God says to Moses, when describing himself (Exod 3:14). Inherit in his self-description is the question, “Then, who am I? Where am I?”
I’m not sure about you, but when Jesus comes again, I want to be found with the impoverished. Because as I understand it, that’s where Jesus is. Kari knows this and lives it: Kari sees Jesus everyday. And when I see Kari, I see Jesus.
Kari showed me each of the beautiful creations of these wonderful women, one by one. The colors were as bright as India; the threading as delicate as the balance of a good curry. In the colors, I saw beauty and hope. I saw Jesus turning craft into livelihood, and livelihood into freedom. Here he is, where am I?
I already knew that I wanted to empower women in Bihar, India. I desired to help them take their craft to the next level, so that they could sell products on the western market, generating more income for their families and communities. But it was in this moment that I realized what this really meant.
I had been given the grand vision of Jesus’ Economy. It was my job to be faithful to its ideas, including connecting entrepreneurs in the developing world to global commerce. But I didn’t really know what that vision meant until this moment.
In this moment, I wondered if I really knew Jesus at all. Because looking at the way Kari represented the great carpenter, I wondered if I would ever represent him as well as she did. In the colors and the smell of curry, I saw hope not just for these women, but for my own heart.
As I looked at Kari, I thought of Mary the mother of Jesus.
Mary’s response to God was simple:
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38 ESV).
In Kari, there is this type of obedience to Jesus. And as a response to Jesus, Kari has chosen not just to rise out of poverty, but to help others do the same. She knows what it means to share the heart of God. She could capitalize on her skills and monopolize, but instead she teaches her skills to others, because that’s what Jesus would do.
Like Kari, Mary didn’t just become Jesus’ disciple; others came along with her.
“But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25 ESV).
When all of Jesus’ disciples leave, but John, it’s three empowered women at the cross.
Mary’s heart must have been palpitating, as she watched her son suffer and die. As the tears streamed down, she must have felt his pain as only a mother can. And then it happens:
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:26–27 ESV).
In this final moment of Jesus’ life, his concern is for his mother. Is he telling her, “Behold, your son!” (speaking of himself) or is he looking at John the Apostle and saying, “Behold, you son”? Either way, the love of this moment is painful to watch. Jesus knows that Mary will need someone now to care for her. Joseph, Mary’s husband, is likely dead at this point and as a widow of this period, Mary needs a male to look after her, as she has little hope of survival in her culture otherwise.
Mary, as the first to truly know and understand Jesus, is the one to watch him die. She shows what it means to be a true disciple.
When I examine Mary’s heart against my own, I know that my own heart is lacking. It’s selfish and ugly; there is much growth yet to happen. My heart is not like Mary’s; nor is my heart like Kari’s.
At the foot of the cross, in the dirt, surrounded by enemies, we see what it means to follow Jesus. Coming off the dusty road in Bihar, India, looking into the eyes of Kari, I see beauty. “You make beautiful things out of the dust,” as the band Gungor says, “you [God] make beautiful things out of us.”
God is making beautiful things, in the colors and the curry, and among the impoverished.
I saw Jesus once. Do you see him?
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“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 NIV).
We know Jesus commands us to spread the gospel across the earth. But how are we doing?
The following is a summary of findings from the Issachar Initiative.
Currently, the Global Church consists of an estimated 5 million churches, and 2.3 billion Christians, about 250 million of which are Americans. The numbers are growing, but the gospel still hasn’t reached even close to everyone.
More than 1 million neighborhoods don’t have a single church, 4,000 language groups still don’t have the Bible, and 3,100 people groups have no missionary. These unreached corners of the world are mostly illiterate, meaning they need to receive the gospel orally, which cannot happen without sufficient missions funding by the Church in the rest of the world.
About 99.7% of the resources (missions activities and financial support) of churches are directed toward the Church where it already exists; whereas it is estimated that only 0.3% is being directed to where the church is not.
The Global Church is growing, but the Great Commission won’t be fulfilled without the resources to go out and reach the entire world.
There are so many people who are yet to hear the gospel, but we can’t give up. It’s an issue that is enormous, no doubt, but there are 250 Million Christian Americans who can do something about this—so let’s solve the problem. And that's just us, on this side of the globe. Think of what would happen if developed nations everywhere got on board.
The statistics in this post are sourced from Issachar Initiative, who is dedicated to serving the body of Christ by bringing vision and focus so its resources are strategically directed towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Jesus' Economy is working towards fulfilling the Great Commission: See our efforts to provide access to the gospel in Bihar, India, where millions are yet to hear the name of Jesus.
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Why am I on earth? It’s the most major existential question we ask. But perhaps it’s better framed as: What does God want from me?
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17 NIV).
These may be some of the most misinterpreted verses in the Bible. I’ve seen people read these verses and then completely shun the world. They think that this passage is telling them to live secluded lives and to ignore the people who ignore Christ—to simply reject the world.
But that’s not what God tells us to do. God loves the world, for he sent his son to die for it (John 3:16–17). Thus, God is not saying to shun the world; he is telling us to not love what the world loves. We should not love the world’s desires and passions.
In 1 John, the world is a metaphor here for evil desires. And the evil of this world will pass away, but “whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
God doesn’t want us to hate the world; he simply wants us to fulfill His good and perfect will.
God’s will is for us to love him, and to glorify him in all that we do. Part of loving God is loving the people he created. If we truly love him, love for his creation follows (Matthew 22:37–39).
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16–17 NIV).
Here in John’s Gospel the metaphor of the world is representative of all of humanity—God loving humanity in spite of humanity’s evil acts.
It is not our job to shun the world; it is our joy to love the people in the world, as God loved them first—that all of humanity might be saved through Christ.
Sometimes, loving the people around us can be incredibly hard.
A few days ago, I passed a group of kids who were smoking and way too young to be doing so. They were dressed very inappropriately and disrespecting the people around them. As a do-gooder, my natural response was to shake my head. I then simply looked at them, took pity on them for their ignorance, and kept walking. Then, a feeling of pride rose in my heart as I considered myself as someone who knows better. But that’s not what’s supposed to happen, nor what did.
As I walked by, my first thought was, yes, one of judgment. But as I kept walking, God reminded me that he wants something more of me: I am not supposed to judge nor just simply walk by.
We are supposed to take it a step further. We are called to love them.
Instead of just walking by, maybe I should have smiled at the kids, said hello, or tried to show them that I cared. I don’t want to be the scoffer that walks by. I also don’t want to be the person who “proclaims God’s Word” and then walks the other direction. I want to live out my beliefs—I want to glorify God. I want to truly show love.
If we are to glorify God, we must truly love the people around us—all of them. We must love the rich and the impoverished, the mean and the nice, the whole and the broken. Whether we like it or not, this is what we are called to do.
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33 NIV).
The needy are not just the people who live on the streets. The needy are also those who don’t have Christ. The needy are the ones who are alone.
And we can be here for them. We can ask them what they need, and we can do our best to empower them—thus shining the light of God.
When we are able to see what really matters in life—when we see what God’s will truly is—we provide for the impoverished and needy, and we store up our treasures in heaven instead of on earth. We see what it means to live out of God’s desires instead of the desires of the world.
I am here to glorify God. I am here to satisfy God’s will. I am here to love the whole world. I am here to love all of the people in the world.
How can I show them love best? I can show them I love them by empowering them. I can be here for them. I can walk up to them and have a conversation. I don’t need to push my love. I need to let it flow from me—just as God’s love flows into me.
We are here to love the world.
“Some things require hard prayer.”
The man who spoke these words to me should know: Biju Thomas is the director of Transformation India Movement—Jesus’ Economy’s partner in Bihar, India. Bihar is one of the most impoverished places in the world, where few have heard the name of Jesus. In Bihar, Biju is empowering people out of poverty and offering access to the gospel. His work is hard and requires hard prayer. In Biju’s work is a message for you. This message, believe it or not, is rooted in a bit of a sitcom joke from Jesus. It’s awkward and beautiful.
Jesus understood that there would be times for hard prayer. And it wasn’t beyond Jesus to setup an incredible awkward scene to illustrate this point. In Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus offers the Lord’s Prayer, he says:
“Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs” (Luke 11:5–8 ESV).
Jesus’ scenario is like a scene that a New York sitcom writer would setup: An old friend shows up in the middle of the night and is hungry. But you’re out of food and the store is closed, so you go to your neighbor’s studio apartment to wake him up. You knock on the door and he starts yelling …
To first-century, Jewish people this scene is probably very awkward—and perhaps even a little funny. Within a culture that highly valued hospitality—with people who lived primarily in one-bedroom homes, before the age of phones, grocery stores, and electricity—these words from Jesus would have had an even greater affect. The scenario in the original audience’s mind probably went something like this:
I’m expected to help my guest, why would my neighbor not help me? … Oh, I guess you’re right, if I was sleeping and my children were asleep, and someone woke me up, I would probably be disturbed too. … And yes, if I were persistent, my neighbor would answer me. Even though it would be an incredible inconvenience to my neighbor, they would understand that I needed their assistance.
Jesus uses this entire analogy to explain hard prayer. It’s shocking and jarring to his audience—for a reason.
Jesus goes on to explain the moral of his story:
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9–10 ESV).
I think Jesus hits us with the awkward scene before the moral for a reason: Jesus wants us to remember that prayer is inconvenient. (The scene was so awkward that it made me uncomfortable when explaining it. And awkward is funny and memorable.)
Call upon God, and yes, he will answer. But that does not mean that God will answer right away. And it doesn’t mean that the call to God will be easy. Calling upon God—knocking on his door—will probably be as difficult as waking up your neighbor in the night.
Prayer is a conversation. It’s about building a relationship. Who has built a solid marriage or friendship without some awkward moments and misunderstandings? Who tells stories about the convenient parts of their lives? Who would actually prefer to watch a sitcom over live one? If your life were a sitcom, it would be happening right now—are you living it? In all its awkwardness, are you living something memorable?
Jesus explains his scene further with another analogy:
“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11–13 ESV).
For Jesus’ culture, it is not when he calls a generation of people “evil” that they are really shocked—it was accepted culturally that people needed a savior and were far from God. The most shocking thing that Jesus says is that the Holy Spirit will be given to those who ask the Father for it. The Holy Spirit was viewed as something that dwelled upon a few individuals—mainly prophets and sometimes kings, and every once in a while, priests—at select moments in time.
This ultimately represents what Jesus’ ministry is all about—God’s very presence dwelling among us and in us. It is Jesus’ death and resurrection that make this possible. Jesus bridges the gap between humanity and God, by bearing the sin of his evil generation and all others, allowing for God to dwell among us and in us.
Prayer is a conversation with the very God who is at work among us. God’s ways are not like our ways, and God wants to change our world for the better—that will lead to some awkward situations.
Following after Jesus—and seeking him through prayer—is not easy, but it is rewarding. My friend Biju is engaged in this type of hard prayer: It is the baseline for everything he does. It requires hard prayer to alleviate poverty and provide access to the gospel. It requires hard prayer to change the world.
Let’s get awkward for Jesus—praying through each moment.
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