Introduction to ‘Encounters with Jesus’

Through the summer months, we will be looking at several different encounters Jesus had with men, women and children recorded in the Gospels.

As we look at each story we will see the amazing way in which Jesus changed lives – the way he healed people, welcomed people,

loved people, spoke truth to people and encouraged them to follow him.

And as we do so, we’ll be asking how can Jesus change our lives?

So, over the coming months we won’t have 4 readings each week, rather we will just focus on the Gospel passage.

 

The Rich Man

The Rich Man

Luke 18:18-30

May God grant us the grace we need to hear His word and the faith we need to respond. Amen.

This passage is a troubling one. It was troubling for the disciples, for the wealthy  ruler, and it is for us. It seems too radical, too abrupt, too … well, too immoderate to suit our tastes. But it’s easy to miss the truth when it is delivered in moderation. The truth, however, can be unmistakable when delivered unvarnished, undiluted. And that is the kind of powerful truth-telling Jesus is known for.

Luke places this event in the midst of a series of incidents and parables designed to indicate the character of discipleship

“A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ”

The word translated “ruler” is from a Greek word generally meaning, one who has administrative authority, ‘leader, official.’ ” It is used of various Jewish leaders, including those in charge of a synagogue and members of the Sanhedrin.

Luke tells us “he was very rich.” pertaining to having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience. And so we have an earnest man, probably because of his wealth and earnestness about spiritual matters, a person entrusted with governance in the synagogue, a ruler, a respected person in the community.

Most of the wealthy, religious people who asked Jesus public questions were trying to trick him into some imprudent statement. But this man’s question was no trick. It was a sincere question to which he needed to know the answer — how to inherit eternal life.

The question tells us several things about the man

He must be feeling inadequate in his spiritual preparation somehow or he probably wouldn’t ask the question.

He sides with the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees (another religious party in First Century Judaism) because the Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death. And this question clearly implies that he does. He believes that eternal life is something that one earns or merits by what he does.

He addresses Jesus as “good teacher,” a somewhat improper way to address a Rabbi, and Jesus rebukes him concerning his careless address:

‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good — except God alone.’

The man can’t understand anything else Jesus will tell him unless he grasps that our relative standards of goodness are so much different than God’s absolute goodness and God’s standards of righteousness.

After pointing out his inadequate understanding of “goodness,” Jesus proceeds to inquire more of this man’s — and his culture’s — measure of righteousness.

The man’s response is immediate. He has kept all the commandments, but still senses a lack, an incompleteness, or else he wouldn’t have come to Jesus in the first place. Now Jesus speaks to the young man’s point of need:

Jesus said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’

It is an ironic exchange that Jesus proposes — exchanging fabulous wealth here on earth for fabulous wealth in the Kingdom of God. Many in history have tried to buy their way into God’s good graces — many of the world’s beautiful cathedrals, temples, and mosques are inscribed with the names of generous benefactors. But Jesus is not proposing buying anything or doing anything glorious. He isn’t proposing a massive contribution to the Jesus Christ Evangelistic Association that will spread the Gospel in perpetuity.

Jesus proposes the man selling all his property and giving the proceeds to those who are least able to reciprocate

Money, however, isn’t the only thing that Jesus asks the man to give up:

  • Possessions, what money will buy,
  • Status and influence that wealth affords.
  • Power. Wealth is power. It buys influence.
  • Community leadership. The man isn’t very likely to continue as a respected ruler without his wealth.
  • Family. The man probably comes from a wealthy family. But if he disposes of a huge chunk of the family wealth, will his siblings understand and accept it? Will his wife and family? His father or mother if they are still living?

But Jesus’ words don’t just upset the rich ruler. They also upset us. I have heard many times the response to this passage: “That doesn’t mean everyone should sell what they have, does it? If everyone did that it would result in chaos.”

Obviously. But why are we even worried with the question? Do we, too, feel possessive of what we have? Do we fear that Jesus may require us to do something that would cost us too much? What are we afraid of?

The story of the rich ruler exposes a raw nerve in us that causes a reaction. But disposing of wealth was not all that Jesus asked the man to do.

However, I don’t think that the following Jesus invites this man to do is just figurative.  I think he is inviting the man to join him on his journeys, to become one of the disciples who enjoy the immense and unspeakable privilege of spending time with Jesus and learning from him on a day-by-day basis. What a wonderful invitation!

But the invitation implicit to us is no less wonderful. We, too, are invited to come to Jesus, and then to follow him on a spiritual life journey. To enjoy his company, his presence. To be taught along the way by his Word and Spirit. To become part of his great extended family, the Body of Christ throughout the world. And to be filled with hope in the closing days of our journey as we know his promises and feel his comfort with us.

“Come, follow me,” is the invitation Jesus extends to you and me.

But the challenge for disciples remains.  Is there anything, any hindrance, that you are unwilling to give up to follow Jesus? You may not be wealthy, but if there is something you possess, or that possesses you, laying it down is a vital part of following Jesus. He must have your all. And he calls gently to you: “Come, follow me.”

Prayer

Dear Father, Jesus’ words have a way of piercing our hearts and defences we have built up against you and doing things your way. Make us tender-hearted. Gently expose the reservations of our hearts, as you did for that wealthy man those many centuries ago. But give us grace to be able to obey you. Forgive us, Lord, for clinging to the remnants of a life independent of you, and make us wholly yours. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

The Woman ‘caught in adultery’

The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11)

Through the written word and the spoken word, may we encounter and know your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Who is the shadow in the middle? American artist Daniel Bonnell painted an image of today’s scripture reading; here is a link (https://www.artpal.com/daniel_bonnell?i=8106-37). It shows Jesus comforting the woman caught in adultery, with the menacing shadows of her accusers in the foreground. English priest, human rights campaigner and songwriter Garth Hewitt wrote a song, describing this painting, called ‘The Shadow in the Middle’; it asks us to reflect on how slow we are to listen to other people’s stories and how quick we are to judge.

But first, it is impossible to overstate the serious nature of sexual misdemeanours, within the Jewish community of first century Palestine; they were ranked amongst the gravest of sins, alongside murder and apostasy, and there were severe penalties prescribed for anyone caught offending. That community was based on a shame-pride culture, so fathers and husbands would be anxious to make sure that their daughters and wives did not transgress in the slightest way and thus bring shame and dishonour upon the family. The system was also heavily stacked in favour of men; Judaism almost always viewed women as the instigators of sexual sin; the passions of adolescent males were attributed to and excused by the seductive attractions of women.

This is the background to this morning’s reading, in which Jesus teaches in the temple, surrounded by an interested crowd, when a party of scribes and Pharisees brings before them a woman they claim to have caught in the very act of adultery. They remind Jesus that the penalty under Mosaic law is death by stoning and ask Jesus to give his views on the matter; this was no hypothetical legal conundrum for Jesus, a woman’s life was at stake.

Clearly these men are not anxious to see justice done and the law upheld so much as to trap Jesus. If Jesus shows the compassion and mercy for which he has become known and forgives the woman, he will be denying God’s law and setting himself above that law and level with God. On the other hand, if Jesus confirms the sentence of death on the woman, he will be destroying his credibility as friend and champion of outcasts and sinners and risking confrontation with the Romans, who didn’t permit the Jews to sanction the death penalty themselves. Game, set and match to the Pharisees, it appears.

But wait! What is Jesus up to? He seems to be writing in the dust. We know neither why he did this nor what he wrote but it does give Jesus time to reflect and to consider his response, whilst leaving an awkward silence in which tension builds and which the Pharisees eventually feel compelled to break by repeating their question, determined to drive home their assumed advantage over Jesus.

Then we hear one of Jesus most well-known sayings, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus cleverly saves the woman’s life whilst also apparently upholding the law and its deadly sentence. For the witnesses to the sin are required by law to begin the stoning, but they are also required to be honest witnesses, who neither connived in the sinning nor failed to try to prevent it. The scribes and Pharisees know that they are not sinless, in this and in other matters. They look to the oldest in their group, as was the custom, and when they turn away and leave, their hypocrisy revealed, the rest of them do likewise, followed by the crowd; Jesus writes in the dust again, neither watching nor delighting in their public humiliation.

For the first time, Jesus then addresses the woman, “Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” She says, “No-one, sir.” Jesus releases her with the words, “Neither do I condemn you.” These are words which troubled many first century Jews, and possibly are the reason why this story is absent from most original manuscripts of John’s gospel, for they may have been taken to condone her adultery when the prevailing culture was to demand punishment, penance and restitution. However, Jesus concludes the encounter with the words, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Forgiveness does not mean that the sin, its consequences and the effects on its victims, do not matter; on the contrary, it means that they really do matter but that, by the grace of God, they have been set aside.

Let us look more closely at the woman. She may not be married but rather betrothed to a man; arranged marriages were common and girls would often be engaged to men they didn’t really know and be expected to keep themselves for their intended husbands. She has been caught in adultery and she knows that she will be punished, whilst the man with whom she committed the act has been allowed to escape. She has been arrested by men proud to be zealous enforcers of the law which, in this case, requires an execution by stoning, a humiliating, brutal and painful death, she is given no opportunity to tell her own story and is made to stand alone and exposed in the middle of a crowd of onlookers to await her fate, so she fears the worst and must be terrified; Jesus is a scholar of the law and will surely uphold sentence of death? What might have been our decision in his place, I wonder?

The tension and her fear rise as Jesus writes in the dust. When Jesus speaks, he talks of people casting stones at her. But something in the words of Jesus causes the scribes and Pharisees to turn and to leave and the crowd follows. She is left alone with Jesus and he sets her free. She must be overwhelmed with emotion, having moved quickly from the joyful embrace of her lover to the confusion of arrest and the fear of imminent death, then to the unexpected realization of freedom, filled with relief and with gratitude. She has been restored to the life she thought was lost and has been given another chance. And Jesus’ release is not conditional; he simply shows that he believes in her ability to respond to his gracious compassion and mercy by reforming herself and living a righteous life and empowers that with his love. She must have been walking on cloud nine as she went on her way and we can only hope that she did grasp this second chance.

And what of the scribes and Pharisees? I have, so far, painted a picture of wicked men, who perverted God’s law so as to make themselves look righteous rather than use it to glorify God; men so intent on plotting to silence a troublemaker, who threatened their comfortable lives, that they were prepared to abuse and to sacrifice a vulnerable woman to achieve their ends. But how might we have acted in their place? These men saw Jesus as a threat, certainly to their own agreeable situation, but also to the whole culture of that religious community. In their eyes Jesus was spreading sedition and heresy, overturning centuries of tradition and understanding and it was their duty to defend tradition and to uphold the law. Some of them at least may simply have been trying to serve God as best they could, even if they couldn’t see that their thinking was seriously flawed and their priorities terribly wrong.

In this encounter, Jesus again condemns the sins but not the sinners; he did not accuse the scribes and Pharisees of anything, but simply asked them to reflect on their own motives and actions and to pass judgement on themselves, rather than on the defenceless woman they had brought before him. For most, sadly, the experience probably only hardened their hearts and made them even more determined to find another, fool-proof, way to destroy Jesus, but there may have been someone among their number who did reflect, consider Jesus’ words more carefully and find their life changed for good.

And for ourselves, what might be our response to our own encounter with Jesus, through the words of this story? I should like to highlight just three areas – priorities, judgement and forgiveness:

  1. Let us make time to reflect and to question our priorities. To guard against becoming caught up in tradition, custom and practice to the point where we lose sight of what really matters: when we put our faith in rituals rather than in God; when we don’t value but use other people, particularly the vulnerable, to gain our own objectives and justify this by claiming that we are doing God’s will.
  1. Let us resist the universal human temptation to justify or to make light of our own sins by claiming that others also sin and that their sins may be worse than ours: when we misquote Jesus to excuse the unrepentant guilty rather than to forgive the humbly penitent; when we self-righteously demand standards of behaviour from others without listening impartially to their stories and without honestly judging ourselves likewise; when we’re tempted to look for vengeance rather than for justice.

Consider the words of Garth Hewitt:

We always know the guilty ones, we’re so quick to criticize. But who is quick to listen, and to ask the question ‘why?’ Looking through another’s eyes, I remember what you’d say. As I see you writing in the dust, and you turn your face away. Who is the shadow in the middle? Who will be the first to point the blame? You turn and look at the shadow in the middle; I see the shadow in the middle bears my name.   (‘The Shadow in the Middle’ from the Album ‘The Road Home’ © 2003 Garth Hewitt / Amos Music  http://www.garthhewitt.org/product/the-road-home/ )

And finally:

  1. Let us take hope from the fact that Jesus condemns sin but not the sinner and that, until the day of final judgement, there is always the promise of redemption; a promise for which he laid down his life. ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Jesus knows what is in our hearts, and if we look to him and listen to him we shall know the absolute joy of his unmerited forgiveness for our sins, which will surely change our lives; if not yet, then I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in us until it does.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.   Amen.