“Let’s Pick teams”
I don’t know about you but those words kind of fill me with dread. They bring back feelings of nervousness and inadequacy. They bring back bad childhood memories.
Remembering back to primary school and as the ‘big uncoordinated slow’ kid I’d notice myself being part of a smaller and smaller group of class mates as teams were picked. the left to last, the left overs… that group they were forced to pick…only because no one could be left out.
“let’s pick teams”
There is that kind of ‘who would you have on your team’ thing happening in the bible passage that we read this morning from Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells a parable to those who thought they were righteous, who though ‘who are you kidding of course I’m on God’s team’ and looked down on other people and the disciples who didn’t think that little children were important enough to take up Jesus time, that the kids around Jesus couldn’t be on Jesus team. In these two events in Luke’s gospel we see the revolutionary upside down grace filled nature of God’s Kingdom.
We’ve been working our way through Luke’s account of Jesus journey to Jerusalem. Today’s passage starts the last section of that journey. A section that starts and finishes with Parables told to correct peoples thinking about the kingdom of God: (click) the one we had read today of the two men who went up to the temple to pray and then the parable of the ten minas, Luke’s version of what we know from other gospels as the parable of the talents. (click) Between those two parables are four encounters which focus on people’s reactions to Jesus and the kingdom of God. The first two are negative, the disciples wanting to keep the children away from Jesus, and the rich young ruler, who when Jesus challenges him about his wealth walks away sad, and two positive encounters, the blind man at Jericho, and the story of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector, both who respond with faith to Jesus. (click) In between these two sets of encounters Jesus again speaks of his death, right in the middle of these things we are reminded of God’s great grace in Christ.
That’s kind of the big picture of where we are going. Let’s look at the passage we had read to us today, which covers that opening parable and Jesus encounter with the children.
Firstly the parable…As we’ve worked our way through Jesus teaching we see that it’s kind of been like a ping pong match, Jesus addresses the crowd, then he will speak specifically to a group like the Pharisees and teachers of the law and then turn and speak to his disciples. It would be easy to think that he is saying this parable simply to the Pharisees. They fit the bill of seeing themselves as righteous because they keep the law, and separating themselves from those who don’t keep their exacting standards, the ones they label sinners. Let’s face it one of the characters in the parable is a Pharisee. And it’s convenient for us because well they’ve been the ones who Jesus has been in conflict with throughout the gospel narrative, they are the ones who criticised Jesus for eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors, and we can say ‘yup we are with you Jesus, we are on your team here mate’ You tell them Jesus.
But Luke’s always been good at identifying the specific group Jesus has been talking to, but now it’s a lot more open ended, unspecified as a certain grouping, and its more about a certain attitude, which could include me…and you. He speaks to those who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. It could mean people amongst his own disciples. As we saw a couple of weeks ago they like the Pharisees had expected that Jesus kingdom would be about victory for their way of thinking. It’s the disciples who Jesus has to rebuke because they didn’t think the children were important enough to warrant Jesus attention, they would be amongst those standing near Jesus who are shocked that the rich young ruler who they thought would be definitely a good pick for team Jesus walked away sad. It invites us to hear Jesus parable speaking to our own lives and attitudes. I always get annoyed when people use that ‘holier than thou’ criticism of the church, I think it’s an uncritical caricature, but maybe we need to stop and look at ourselves.
Jesus talks of two people who go up to the temple to pray. A Pharisee, a person who identified with a strict party within the Jewish religious world who focused on living according to the law, and the other a tax collector, people in Jewish thought who were dishonest, traitors and collaborators because they worked for the Romans, ritually unclean because this work forced them to have constant contact with gentiles. The Pharisee stands by himself to pray and his prayer focuses on thanking God that he is not like those other people, and he has a good list of categories of people he would see as sinners, and we may agree with his list, and we could probably add a few more to it. He finishes by saying and thank you that I’m not like this tax collector. Like he was presenting his CV for why he is on God’s team, he says he fasts twice a week, and that he tithes everything he should. He feels he is on God’s team because of who he is and what he does and does not do. It is like he has earned his place in God’s favour. I hear that attitude in the prosperity gospel, when it is peached God will bless you if you tithe, usually them means give the money to us. I hear it in people who say well I don’t drink much or smoke, I’ve never killed anyone or robbed anyone, not like those guys…so I expect to go to heaven. I’ll be on God’s team. Right!
The tax collector stood at a distance, he couldn’t lift his head to heaven, he comes to God aware of his own failings and faults… but also deeply aware of God’s true character. He asks God to forgive him and have mercy. He is aware of his need for God he does not think that God needs him. He is the one who is open and honest before God and so open to God’s grace.
Jesus conclusion by saying that the person who went home justified that day, which is a legal term that means deemed innocent is the tax collector. It’s the shock of the parable. The parable is a profound illustration of salvation by faith and grace. That we cannot earn our way to God, we can’t be so good that God just must have us on his team. Rather it is by grace alone, God’s mercy that we are put right with God. It is as we humble ourselves and realise our need for God forgiveness and mercy that we enter the kingdom of God… It’s not our status or our belonging to a certain group or our religious disciplines and traditions, or our good deeds it is God’s grace. God’s love shown for us in Jesus dying on the cross taking on himself all that we have done wrong and paying the price, so that we can be declared ‘not guilty’ and be reconciled with God. We come to God humbly aware of our need for him, our dependence on his mercy and grace. And God picks us up and blesses us and makes us whole.
Then Luke draws us to a real-life application of this parable. It’s almost as if the disciples had had to listen to Jesus parable over the top of babies crying and toddlers babbling away, because we move right on to parents bringing their children up to Jesus to bless them. In Jesus day children, did not have any status or standing in society. The disciples reflect that by seeing them as not important enough for Jesus.
But Jesus rebukes them he turns that kind of thinking on its head. In fact Jesus turns the tables by tells his disciples and us that unless we have faith like a little child we cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
Theologically, People have reflected on what it means to have a child like faith. It does not mean that we have an uncritical unquestioning faith, that we simply have a Sunday school faith that does not grow to address the intellectual rigor and complexity of life as we grow older. It’s not a naive faith that is easy brushed aside by reason. In fact as we wrestle with life and big questions it can deepen and strengthen that faith. One of things that I loved and struggled with when my children were smaller was that continual asking “why?”. “Why?” and when you have an answer the reply was “why?” and after that it was “why? Again till I like most parents got to the point of having to resort to “just because”. I value that they still ask why, in more articulate ways, but I hope that is a journey into faith not away from it.
The children in mind here are babies in arms and infants. Probably bought to Jesus to bless because of the high infant mortality rate. In psalm 131 David expresses his faith in God like being a weaned child sitting at peace on his mother’s lap and that is a helpful image for us to understand what Jesus is saying. A baby and infant are dependent on their parents for life. The Hebrew word El Shaddai which we translate into English as God almighty from its root God of the mountains, can also mean God who has breasts and be a feminine image of God and means God all sufficient. To have a child like faith is to have the knowledge that we are dependent on God for our lives and our salvation and relationship with him.
Practically, this passage invites us to take the same attitude that Jesus had towards children. To see children as precious and important in God’s sight. NT wright says Jesus rebuke still rings true today so many children are still mistreated as subhuman and as disposable commodities’. They are abused, neglected, and suffer the most from poverty and deprivation. It is a blight on our country that we have such bad child abuse statistics and that child poverty has become a constant companion in a place of plenty. It is one of the worst blights on the church that there has been so much child abuse in all wings of the church and it has been hushed up and brushed aside and victims have had a difficult time getting apologies and seeing the perpetrators of it face justice.
Next week we have a group called flame coming to share how as a group of ordinary kiwi Christians they are working out Jesus teaching with the slum children of Cambodia, inspiring and supporting them through school and university so they can become community and change leaders. Helping protect them from the sex trade, slavery and trafficking and the despondency and despair of abject poverty.
This passage also invites us to be a church that welcomes and values children. It’s why we have sort to get a ‘kids friendly’ standard. We welcome children here, we care for them, we are comfortable with babies and toddlers in our midst. I love the way Children are greeted in our greeting times as well as adults, we are good at remembering their names. I’m never put off by any noise they make in our services, because they are a sign of hope for the future and a reminder of the fact that like them we are dependent on God’s great love. We include them in our worship services, and give them leadership roles in our worship, they draw us together every service and remind us of the centrality of the word of God in our worship and lives as they carry the bible in, they remind us of Christ’s presence with us by lighting a candle, we have them do bible readings, take up the collection, help lead us in sung worship. I’ve asked the children to help us with communion today. We are all on the team together. The Spy group are going to serve communion along with the elders. We have worked at having a good Christian education programme here, we are blessed to have teachers and leaders who invest so much into our children. Much of social outreach revolves round caring for the social needs of mothers and pre-schoolers, and as we’ve done that God has used it to bring new people to our church. Our kids feel loved and appreciated here. I know it’s not always easy, its meant change and some discomfort, I know as a parent that it’s hard getting kids to church. But if children are a blessing from God then we are blessed. Our statistics were recently analysed by a professional and while our overall attendance means we struggle to be sustainable, our ratio of children to adults is an indicator of good health and hope. We are not an old church.
In my daily devotion this week, as often happens, I came across a Nicky Gumble quote that captures Jesus teaching in the whole passage we read today, he says “the great emphasis of the New testament is that we relate to God by faith. We cannot earn the right to a relationship with God, it is a gift to be received by faith.’ A gift offered to all regardless of social standing or lack of it, to both the very young through the whole range of ages, regardless of who we are and where we come from. A gift to be accepted with a childlike faith.