Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Sinful Woman Forgiven

The Crucifixion - Lucas Cranach the Elder
Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.” “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50).

Was the sinful woman forgiven her many sins because she did all the things described in the Gospel passage? No. Jesus explains, quite simply, that the woman’s faith saved her. So, what does that mean? Perhaps it means that this woman’s actions are evidence of the genuine repentance and faith which the Holy Spirit worked in her heart. She certainly did not merit the forgiveness Jesus proclaimed to her; Scripture tells us this is not possible. Scripture says we are saved by God’s undeserved favor, through our faith in Christ, which also comes to us as a gift from outside ourselves.[1] Repentance is also God’s gift.[2]

When Jesus says the woman is saved by her faith we get a wrong impression of what He is saying. That is because we naturally have a wrong understanding of what repentance and faith are. It is not surprising. We sinful men are so inwardly focused because of sin that we cannot, apart from the Holy Sprit’s working, understand spiritual things.[3] It is our natural inclination to earn heaven. We are naturally inclined to think that, even though we may be sinners, we are not really as bad as a lot of other men. That is supposed to make our sin somehow better, and more acceptable in our minds. I might sin and make mistakes sometimes, but I’m not as bad as Hitler. I’m basically good; I just need a little help. We trick ourselves into believing we can make up for our “mistakes” by doing something good. This is what we think the sinful woman was doing when she comes before Jesus with tears; except, that wasn’t what was happening with the sinful woman. Jesus shows us that with one sentence. He says to her, “Your faith has saved you.”

Christ has saved us from beginning to end. No part of our salvation depends on our work. He created us.[4] He died on the cross as the payment for our sin.[5] He uses His means of word, water, bread and wine to repent us of our sin and create faith in us.[6] Any work of righteousness we would do to merit Christ’s gifts are as filthy rags.[7] When Jesus declares that this woman’s faith has saved her, He is saying that He saved her. Far from encouraging us to try to manufacture enough faith to be counted worthy by Christ, He is actually showing us that such a thing is impossible for us to do. Faith is not an act of our will; it is not something we decide to do after being convinced through reasoned argument or emotional manipulation. It is Christ’s gift. Hear the Word. Repent. Believe the Gospel. Be forgiven. Rejoice. Love much; we have been forgiven much.

[1] John 1:12-13; Ephesians 2:8-10
[2] 2 Timothy 2:25
[3] Romans 8:6-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14
[4] Colossians 1:15-16
[5] 1 John 2:2
[6] Matthew 26:26-30; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Titus 3:5-7
[7] Isaiah 64:6

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:16-18). 

I grew up in a congregation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod that practiced the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The people would approach the pastor, who was standing in the front of church. He held a silver vessel containing an unappealing black substance. It was the burned remnants of the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday mixed with oil. As the people would come to the pastor, he would blacken his thumb with the ashes and make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead. He would tell each person, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I never realized, however, that this was fasting. Growing up when and where I did, I also didn’t realize that what was to me a natural part of the Ash Wednesday worship service was, in other places, quite a contentious issue. 

Later, attending college in what is referred to by some as the “Bible Belt,” I met many people, Christians and non-Christians, who were shocked by this worship practice. Lutherans were few in number in Murray, Ky. Most of my friends were some flavor of evangelical protestant. Knowing that I professed to be a Christian, when the inevitable discussion would arise, many would quote this passage of scripture to me, and tell me the imposition of ashes was unbiblical. I had to admit that I had not thought about it in that way before. It certainly seemed logical. 

It has always been the Confessional Lutheran view that the Church should not do away with good traditions and practices, but only those things that take away from the Gospel. The Imposition of Ashes is one of those good traditions. Fasting was an important part of the Jewish religion. The problem Jesus had with fasting was not the practice, but that the hypocrites turned it into a work of self-glorification. Jesus does not forbid fasting, either here or elsewhere. He expects his disciples to fast. Jesus says, “When you fast…” The issue with fasting is not should it be practiced, but rather, are we doing it so other people with think we are holy? Do our hearts feel true sorrow and humility? Fasting can be good training for our will, but God does not command particular times, places, or forms of fasting.[1] There is nothing we have to offer, no work we can do, no ceremony we can perform, in order to merit God’s forgiveness. 

After leaving church on Ash Wednesday, sometimes people forgot that they had a smear of ashes on their forehead. Sometimes they would inadvertently scratch their foreheads. The residue on their finger would serve as a subtle reminder that they were dust, and to dust they must one day return. Before going to bed, looking in the mirror, one is once again reminded they are marked with the black stain of sin. 

Those ashes, however, are drawn on the forehead in the sign of a cross. Not as if the cross is some kind of magic sign to ward off evil. It is also as a reminder. The cross reminds us that the guilt of mankind’s sin has been paid for by Christ’s death. The blood of Christ shed on the cross has justified us. We did not participate in Christ’s saving work at all. It happened while we were still powerless.[2] God has given us forgiveness as a gift, through Christ Jesus. He sends His Holy Spirit to us to create faith in our hearts through the means of his Word and Sacraments. He enables us to do works that please him – not in order to earn his favor – but to glorify his most holy name. Fasting, and other traditions like the Imposition of Ashes, can help us to look at our sin, confess it, and acknowledge our need for a savior. These traditions, used properly, and not imposed as a law, focus us on Christ and Him crucified.


[1] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.
[2] Romans 5:8-9

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Give, and it will be given to you...

“Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:37-38).

Health and wealth heretics and prosperity preachers love to point their unwitting flocks to this verse, and others like it. They are skilled at using them out of context to manipulate their flocks into sending them money. “Give,” Jesus says, “and it will be given to you!” If you are generous, God will be generous to you. If you give, God will give to you. So, if you want to experience increase, whether in your bank account, your health, or your love life, give. More specifically, give money to me, the TV preacher. Sow your seed offering. Be like the widow who gave all she had. Give until it hurts so God knows you are serious. And if, after you sow your seed and step out in faith, you don’t receive your “increase”, it isn’t because I am a liar; You simply must not have given enough. You didn’t have enough faith. Never fear! The TV preacher will allow you to send him as much money as it takes to obtain your blessing. This is what has been called the Prosperity Gospel. False teachers have been using it to bilk people of their money for many years. It works especially well in America, where we do not experience the hopeless, soul-crushing poverty prevalent in many other areas of the world.

But, looking at Christ’s words, isn’t that what the plain reading of the text says? Give and it will be given to you. Isn’t Jesus literally telling His disciples that he will bless them if they give generously? No. These two verses come from the middle of a sermon that spans 29 verses in Luke’s Gospel. Understood in their context we learn what Jesus is actually discussing: Jesus is talking about forgiveness. He wants us to forgive others. He has granted us a generous portion of forgiveness, we are to do likewise, if we really believe what Jesus says is true. That good treasure He has put into our hearts by the working of His Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace should overflow out of us. Is this any surprise? This is the same Jesus who teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”[1] This is the Jesus who told Peter the parable of the unforgiving servant, and that he should forgive his neighbor, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.[2] 

We, who have been freely forgiven by Christ for our sin, should treat our neighbors likewise. If we don’t, we must reexamine whether we really believe that God has forgiven us by his grace, in Christ, apart from our works. We run the risk of being that unforgiving servant. If we removed verse 38 from the discourse here recorded by Luke, is there any doubt that Christ is talking about mercy and forgiveness?  Does it make sense that His focus should shift from forgiveness and mercy, to a magic formula for having your best life now, for the space one sentence? Of course not. We daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment. Since God has given us forgiveness through His Son freely, we will also heartily forgive, and also readily do good, even to those who sin against us.[3]

[1] Matthew 6:9-13
[2] Matthew 18:21-35
[3] Triglot Concordia: the symbolical books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Paying Taxes to Caesar

Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words. When they had come, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why do you test Me? Bring Me a denarius that I may see it.” So they brought it. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at Him (Mark 12:13-17).

The Pharisees and Herodians are hoping to catch Jesus in a misstatement. They were afraid of the reaction of the crowds if they should come out against Jesus overtly and imprison or murder Him[1]. They figured that the only way for them to get rid of Jesus without causing a riot would be for Him to incriminate Himself. Their question is designed to put Jesus between a rock, and a hard place. If He answers that they shouldn't pay taxes to Rome, He is a subversive, a threat to Rome, and subject to it’s punishment. If He advocates paying taxes, then the Pharisees can say that He is a traitor to His people and the people would then call for His head. They open with a bit of flattery. We know you are true, they say; we know you care about no one, that is, Jesus is no respecter of persons. He’s not diplomatic and will speak what He thinks regardless of who is listening. These statements are made to soften Jesus up. If they thought, as they said, that Jesus taught the way of God in truth, why did the Pharisees and Herodians not simply accept what Jesus was teaching, rather than questioning Him?

These men, who knew what God’s Word said to look for, saw what Jesus did, and they knew what it meant. They saw Him heal the sick, restore the sight of the blind, make the lame to walk, and they understood that these were signs that pointed to the coming Messiah[2]. But they weren’t looking for the right kind of Messiah. They were looking for a political savior rather than a spiritual one. They were looking for a messiah who would save them from their bondage to Rome, not from their bondage to sin. Rather than embrace His coming, rather than repent and believe, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians were more concerned with holding on to their political power and religious authority[3].

Jesus would not assent to the faulty premise of their question. He uses the chance to show the true relationship between temporal and spiritual things. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Jesus tells us that, while our first allegiance is to God and His kingdom, we are bound to obey all legitimate civil authority[4]. He has instituted government for good order and our protection. Where the two come into conflict, we must obey God rather than men, as the Apostles showed us when they were imprisoned for preaching the Gospel after being ordered by the authorities to stop.[5] But, concerning earthly matters we are to obey the government which has authority over us.[6] Jesus tells us bluntly to keep our priorities straight. May we be careful to always render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

[1] Matthew 21:45-46
[2] Luke 7:22; Luke 4:16-21
[3] John 11:48-53; 18:13-14
[4] Romans 13:1-8
[5] Acts 5:22-32
[6] Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible (Vol. I). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Jesus Counsels the Rich Young Ruler

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler
Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.” Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.” So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:17-31).

The rich young ruler comes to Jesus. He asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him that he already knows the answer. He must keep the commandments. Do this, and you will live. The man tells Jesus that he has, just as we tend to tell ourselves today. I’m no thief; I don’t commit adultery; I haven’t murdered anyone. But we all are these things, even if we don’t realize it. This is the point Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount. To lust after a woman is to commit adultery; to hate our brother is to murder him. This goes for the First Commandment, thou shalt have no other gods, as well. Doubtless, this rich young ruler thought he was keeping the First Commandment by doing all the things prescribed in the Law for an Israelite to do concerning the worship of God. Jesus, however, shows him that his true object of worship, his idol, was his wealth.

Jesus looked at the man and loved him. By pointing out the man’s breaking of the First Commandment, Jesus calls him to repentance. The fruit of Jesus’ love, the forgiveness of sins, waits for the rich young ruler if he sells all he has, gives to the poor, and follows Christ. Life is not offered this man on the condition of doing the work of charity, nor is Jesus implying that wealth is inherently evil. Money isn’t evil; the love of money, we are told elsewhere in Scripture, is the root of all kinds of evil. In the case of the rich young ruler, love of money was the root of idolatry. He feared, loved, and trusted in his wealth instead of God. Jesus' instructions to the man point this out in a glaring way. For the man to do as Jesus told him would have been for him to repent and believe. 

The disciples were now greatly astonished. How hard it is for those who have riches - who trust in riches - to enter the kingdom, Jesus tells them. If these people, who are wealthy and powerful, have trouble getting in, what chance do we lowly fishermen have? Indeed, what chance do any of us have? We have, in fact, the same chance as the disciples and the rich young ruler: no chance at all. After all, with man, Jesus says, it is impossible. On our own, trying to be good enough to measure up to God’s standard of holiness and perfection set forth in the Law, we cannot succeed. With God, however, all things are possible. Since God grants faith and forgiveness as His free, undeserved gift because of Christ, we all may receive them, through the means of His Word, by the working of the Holy Spirit. That is a comforting thing whether you are a child, a rich young ruler, a Pharisee, a disciple, or a “modern” man.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Sending Out the Twelve

And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease. Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananite[1], and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him. These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food. Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out. And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city! Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:1-16).

Jesus, going through the cities and towns, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, sees the multitudes. He is moved because He sees that they are weary and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus commands His disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest. He then grants their prayer by sending. The disciples, now called Apostles, or sent ones, are given power to cast out demons, and to heal sickness and disease, and sent out as laborers into the harvest. He gives them specific instructions as to how they should conduct themselves. They are to go among the lost sheep of Israel. They will preach the same message that Christ preached. The kingdom of God which will rescue man from sin and death, and crush the devil’s head, is coming. In Christ, it has arrived. Jubilee! It is the year of the Lord’s favor.[2] Since they are going out with Christ’s authority, preaching His message, they will also be treated as He is treated. He tells them to be wise as serpents, but harmless as doves. This is dangerous work. They are sheep among wolves.

Jesus sends his Apostles to Israel first. They are, after all, the ones who should recognize the message and accept it. They should be the ones who recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of Scripture. Of course, we know that the Christ is also a light to lighten the Gentiles.[3] That will come later. For now, the gospel of the kingdom is proclaimed to Israel alone. And just as Jesus demonstrated the authority of His preaching through the miracles He performed, His Apostles will do likewise. Since the closing of the Apostolic age, however, there is no need for such authentication by miracle. We have the external, written Word.[4] Holy Scripture is the rule by which all messages are to be judged, even if a messenger comes performing miracles. In fact, Christ teaches us that false christs and false prophets will rise up and do great signs and wonders.[5] We learn from Paul that the devil masquerades as an angel of light. He has his own false ministers and false apostles.[6] On the contrary, it is the doctrine, or teaching, that matters. Jesus wants us to judge preachers based on their message, and he wants teachers to teach all that he has commanded. If they teach what Jesus and His Apostles taught, the miracles of Christ and the Apostles continue to authenticate the message.

We learn here that we should continue to pray that the Lord would send workers into the harvest. We should not be surprised to find that He is constantly answering this prayer using we, His people, through the vocations in which He has placed us. We must proclaim the same message as Christ and His Apostles: That the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The Scriptures are fulfilled. Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that He was buried and rose again the third day.[7]

[1] Cananaean
[2] Luke 4:16-30; Isaiah 49:8-9
[3] Luke 2:25-35
[4] Hebrews 1:1-2
[5] Matthew 24:24
[6] 2 Corinthians 11:5-15
[7] 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Build on the Rock

The Sermon on the Mount - Carl Bloch
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.” And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Matthew 7:24-29).

Jesus ends His Sermon on the Mount by comparing those who hear these sayings and does them to a wise builder who builds his house on a firm foundation of rock. To be the wise builder, we must hear and we must do. But does this not contradict St. Paul? He told us that it is by grace we have been saved, through faith, and not by works, lest any man should boast.[1] And here is Jesus telling us we must “do” his words if we want our house to be built on the firm foundation. This is not the only time Our Lord tells us to “do”. When asked by the Jews what they must do to be saved, Jesus tells them that they must do the work of God - they must believe in the one God the Father has sent.[2] They must “faith”; that is the work of God. And working is a part of “faithing”.

But we also learn from Holy Scripture that faith without works is dead. Like the body without a spirit is dead, so is a faith without works dead.[3] A true and living faith in Christ will manifest itself in good works. We can’t see faith; the works we do are evidence of it. This is how Our Lord can say, “...he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment,”[4] and also that we will, on the Last Day, be judged by what we have done. The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth - those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.[5] The Lutheran Confessions affirm this when they say that good works certainly and without doubt follow true faith.[6] The words of the Athanasian Creed testify to this scriptural truth when they say that at Christ’s coming, all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic, that is universal, faith which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly he cannot be saved.

Faith and works fit together like this: Good works are a physical, tangible manifestation of the gift of faith. They spring forth naturally from a living faith, which is graciously given by God through the means of His Word. On the contrary, an absence of works, or evil works, testify to an absent, or a dead, faith.

Think of the sheep and the goats.[7] The sheep, when judged by what they have done, are surprised to hear that they have done anything at all. The goats protest that they neglected nothing, did nothing wrong, omitted nothing commanded. Their works, or lack thereof, testify to their faith, or lack thereof. But don’t get the order wrong. We cannot do works in order to please God. Faith produces the works, not vice versa. A faith without works is a mere intellectual acknowledgement and assent. Such faith is the faith of demons.[8] If we hear, and believe, then we will do. Our house of life will be built on the foundation of Christ’s Word, firm and secure against all the perils and torments which the devil may throw at us.

[1] Ephesians 2:8-9
[2] John 6:29
[3] James 2:26
[4] John 5:24
[5] John 5:24-30
[6] FC Ep IV 6
[7] Matthew 25:31-46
[8] James 2:14-20