The Prayer of Anguish

Growing up in the church, I came away with the impression that Christians are supposed to pray confident, victorious prayers, full of praise, trusting that God will always provide the answer we seek.  But when I examine the actual prayers of some of the great heroes of Scripture, I find a different picture.

David, the great psalmist, opens Psalm 13 with dark questions: “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

Psalm 22 opens with even deeper despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

And in Psalm 69 David vomits up this expression of discouragement: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.  I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.  I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.  My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”

Jeremiah, who gained a reputation as “the weeping prophet,” stated, “My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick” (Jeremiah 8:18).  He complained to God, “Cursed be the day on which I was born!  The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!  Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ making him very glad.  Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great.  Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14-18)

 Moses, the great leader of Israel, prayed to God, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery” (Numbers 11:15).

And the great prophet Elijah begged God, “O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4).

According to the Gospel of Luke, even Jesus—a very member of the Godhead—prayed in deep turmoil.  Even after an angel came down from heaven to minister to Jesus, his turmoil was not dispelled.  Luke 22:44 reports, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”

What we need to know is that prayer will not always be a peachy clean experience for us, filled with the refreshing peace of God.  Sometimes prayer will be filled with the bubbling up of the deep sorrow, fear, pain and anguish of our soul.

Jesus’ experience of praying on the Mount of Olives shortly before his arrest and crucifixion was like a gethsemane.  The word gethsemane means “a place for pressing oils.”  Ray Vander Laan explains, “During Jesus’ time, heavy stone slabs were lowered onto olives that had already been crushed in an olive crusher.  Gradually, the slabs’ weight squeezed the olive oil out of the pulp, and the oil ran into a pit.”  That seems to be how Jesus felt as he prayed.

Olive oil was almost sacred to the Jewish people.  It was used to anoint kings and priests.  When Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives, blood seeped from his pores like anointing oil that was squeezed from the olives.  The blood that seeped from Jesus did exactly what olive oil did in Jewish culture for centuries.  It is Jesus’ blood—his death for us—that anoints us as heirs of the King of the universe and as priests of the Living God.

Because Jesus was willing to go through the agony of crucifixion, we are brought into intimate and eternal relationship with God. 

Because he endured the agony of prayer on the Mount of Olives, we can know that it is okay for us to pray in anguish.  If it okay for Jesus to pray in agony, then it is okay for us to pray in agony as well. 

As Jesus prayed in agony, he felt free to ask of God exactly what he wanted.  He wanted to be relieved from having to go through with the crucifixion; he wanted to be relieved of having to take upon himself all of our sins.  So he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”  We can know that it is okay for us, too, to ask God for whatever we want. 

In the end, though, Jesus submitted to God’s will.  He prayed, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.”  We will need to pray as Jesus did, submitting finally to God’s will.  The sequence is important though: Start by genuinely pouring out to God the longing of our soul; and conclude by submitting to God’s will for our lives.

Through it all, we can know that Christ sympathizes with the anguish of our prayers, for he experienced that himself.  And we can know that he is with us in our anguish, for that’s what he accomplished by drying for us (by anointing us with the blood that was squeezed from him).

A Deed to be Praised and Imitated

When a woman poured expensive ointment on Jesus’ head during a dinner at Bethany near the end of his life, Jesus announced to everyone at the dinner, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Nowhere else in any of the Gospels did Jesus suggest that anything anyone else had done would be told all around the world.  He did not claim that everyone would hear about the faith of the centurion, or about Peter walking on water, or about the blind man seeing again, or about Zacchaeus’ dramatic repentance, or about the feeding of the 5000, but he said it about this woman pouring ointment on his head!

Pericles, who was responsible for the construction of the Parthenon in ancient Greece, argued that it was the duty of an Athenian woman to live such an inconspicuous life that her name would never be mentioned among men either for praise or for shame.  The thinking in Greek culture was that a woman should live in such a way that she would never even be noticed.  But this woman caused a great stir when she broke open her alabaster jar and poured the ointment on Jesus’ head.  Jesus praised her and announced that she would go down in history for it!

Mark reports that the people at the dinner “scolded her,” complaining “in anger” that the ointment could have been sold for the price of at least 300 days’ wages, and the money given to the poor.  But Jesus defended her and affirmed the value of what she did, and he declared that what she did would be “proclaimed in the whole world!”

What is going on here?  Why is Jesus so impressed by her deed?

To answer that question, consider the setting where this took place.  They were eating a Middle-Eastern meal, vibrant with the aroma of delicious food.  There would have been the smell of freshly baked unleavened bread, since this was in the days leading up to the Passover.  There would have been the aroma of red wine.  There would have been the smell of dates, and figs, and fresh grapes, and cooked onions, and Jerusalem cheese, and pickled herrings, and honey pie.  Quite possibly, there would also have been the smell of barbecued lamb or goat.  These aromas would have warmed the nostrils and the souls of all the guests.

Then the woman arrives, not with a hot dish made from her grandmother’s famous recipe, but with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.  When she breaks the jar and pours the contents on Jesus’ head, she fills the room with a new and beautiful aroma—the aroma not just of nard, but of love and devotion. 

Apparently, there is nothing that thrills Jesus’ heart more than that!

Henry David Thoreau once advised, “Behave so the aroma of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere.”  That’s what this woman does, and such a deed deserves to be shared around the world!

Henrietta Mears once remarked, “God does not always choose great people to accomplish what he wishes, but he chooses a person who is wholly yielded to him.”  That’s what Jesus finds in this woman, and that’s what he decides should be shared all around the world.

One other aspect to this story should be mentioned.  In breaking the alabaster jar, this woman made a great personal sacrifice toward Jesus.  Jesus, in turn, tells the people at the dinner that “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”  It is Jesus who will be making the greatest sacrifice—giving his very life for us.  There is something incredibly beautiful when the sacrifice of Jesus is greeted by a person’s own sacrifice of devotion and love.  When that happens, the world ought to hear about it so that we can be inspired by it and imitate it.  That’s why her story continues to be shared throughout the world. 

Let Nothing Block Access to God

Watching the movie John Q helps me to understand the Biblical account of Jesus overthrowing tables in the temple and driving out the money changers.

In the movie, Denzel Washington plays the part of John Quincy Archibald, a Chicago factory worker whose young son, Michael, is rushed to the hospital after collapsing at a softball game.  John and Denise Archibald are told that Michael needs a heart transplant to survive.  The procedure will cost the family $250,000 with a required down payment of $75,000 in order to place Michael on the organ recipient list, but due to the factory’s recent change of insurance carriers, John’s health insurance refuses to cover the surgery.  When the Archibalds are unable to raise the needed funds and are unable to arrange alternate aid, the hospital decides to release Michael from their care so that he can die at home.  Distraught over the prospect of losing their child, Denise pleads with John to do something.  In desperation, John takes Dr. Turner and several patients and staff hostage, demanding that Michael’s name be placed on the recipient list. 

Desperation to save his child drives John Q. Archibald to extreme actions.  That’s the kind of pathos stirring in Jesus’ soul as he watched what was taking place in the temple.

Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem at the beginning of preparations for Passover.  This meant that pilgrims from many distant towns were also arriving in Jerusalem.  For many, this was the time when they would pay their yearly temple tax.  But the temple would only accept Tyrian shekels which had a higher silver content than the normal Roman currency.  Money changers in the temple charged a handsome markup in the exchange process, greedily profiteering off of worshipers. 

On top of that, temple authorities appointed inspectors to check the quality of every animal that worshipers hoped to present as a sacrifice, to certify that every gift to God was without injury or blemish.  If the inspector decided an animal had an unacceptable flaw, the worshiper would be required to purchase a replacement from one of the temple’s merchants.  Often the temple sellers would charge as much as 20 times more than what the same animal would be sold for outside of the temple.

Mark specifically notes that Jesus overturned the benches of those who were selling doves.  The law stipulated that a dove was an acceptable sacrifice for those who could not afford to present a lamb or goat.  Doves were the usual sacrifice by women for their purification, by lepers for their cleaning, and by the poor.  The ability to offer a dove in the temple was essential for those who were most vulnerable in Jewish society at the time. 

Moreover, the area of the temple where business was taking place is the portion that was referred to as the Court of the Gentiles.  This was where God-fearing Gentiles could draw near to God.  By setting up shop in this section of the temple, the merchants and the temple authorities were blocking Gentiles from having access to God.

When the life of his son was at risk, John Q took the extreme action of taking the doctor and others hostage.  When Jesus observed the risk to the souls of those who were being pushed aside, Jesus took desperate actions himself.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  As desperate as John Q was to get his son on the recipient list, so desperate is Jesus that no one be blocked from having access to God.

Indeed, Jesus goes on to take the ultimate step.  He lays down his life to give everyone access to God!  Matthew, Mark and Luke each report that when Jesus died, the curtain in the temple was ripped in two, from top to bottom.  The veil in the temple was a long, thick, woven curtain of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen.  It separated “the Most Holy Place”—where God was thought to reside—from everything else.  The thick curtain that set apart that room symbolized the separation between us and God. It represented the barrier between God’s pure holiness and our sinfulness.  By ripping the curtain apart, from top to bottom, at the point of Jesus’ death, God sent a message, letting us know that because of the death of Christ, nothing will be allowed to separate us from God—not the tables of money changers or the exploitation of dove sellers or a curtain in the temple or sin or death or anything else will be allowed to block our access to the love of God! 

The Power of Grace

Louisa Fletcher Tarkington once wrote, “I wish that there were some wonderful place called the Land of Beginning Again, where all our mistakes and all our heartaches and all our poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door and never be put on again.” 

That Land of Beginning Again is sought by many people who come to a point of grieving the mess they have made of their lives.  But most of us fear that we could never find such a Land of Beginning Again where all of our mistakes and heartaches and poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby coat and never be put on again.

It seems to me that Zacchaeus is such a person.  He is the chief tax collector in one of the more important taxation centers in all of Palestine.  Therefore, we know that he is rich and shrewd.  As chief tax collector, every tax collector beneath him had to turn over a portion of their profits to him.  Zacchaeus was a person who had reached the top of his profession and whose income far surpassed nearly all of his countrymen.  But his chosen profession had also made him a despised man.  He was hated throughout the country.  The Jewish people hated him because tax collectors made their income by adding their own margin of profit to the taxes they extracted from others.  Even worse, the money tax collectors turned over was used to pay for the upkeep of the Roman army in Canaan.  Since Zacchaeus was collecting taxes for Rome, Jewish people looked upon him as both a thief and a traitor.  Since he was Jewish, though, he was despised by the Romans.  They used him to collect their taxes, but he was merely a pawn to them—someone to use then discard.  Nobody liked Zacchaeus or wanted anything to do with him.

No wonder Zacchaeus may have found himself longing for the Land of Beginning Again.

One day, Zacchaeus hears the news that the teacher from Galilee is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem.  Zacchaeus has heard rumors about this teacher and miracle worker who is known as a friend to sinners and to tax collectors.  He is curious.  He wants to see Jesus with his own eyes.  He figures that if he can get a good look at this controversial teacher, he will be able to ascertain what kind of person Jesus is.

Being such an unpopular person, though, Zacchaeus knows that no one will give him a spot at the front of the crowd.  The “good” people of Jericho will certainly not be willing to share space with him along the road.  But, being a short person, if he is pushed to the back of the crowd, he will never be able to see Jesus.  Furthermore, who knows what an agitated crowd might do to a chief tax collector.  So Zacchaeus hurries ahead of the crowd and climbs up into a sycamore tree, the leafiest tree in Israel.  He hides there waiting for Jesus to pass beneath him so that he can get a glimpse of Jesus from his place of secrecy. 

The kind of fear that drives a person to secrecy and hiding is the hallmark of shame, which has been described as “the inner, critical voice that judges whatever we do as wrong, inferior or worthless.”  Over the years, external and internal voices had been telling Zacchaeus that his livelihood is wrong and despised, and that he is inferior and worthless for doing it.

When Jesus arrives at the tree where Zacchaeus is hiding, he stops and calls out to him.  Oh, what potential for further shame this presents!  It was considered shameful in that culture for a grown man to run because running involved a man pulling up his robe and exposing his naked legs.  How much more shameful it would have been for a grown man to be caught hiding in a tree (exposing more than just his ankles probably).

But Jesus was not looking for an opportunity to shame Zacchaeus.  Instead, he calls out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

The crowd is ready for shame to be poured on.  They fully expect Jesus to give a good verbal thrashing to the tax collector hiding in the tree.  But a verbal thrashing would be nothing new to Zacchaeus.  He has been scolded many times already.  He has heard plenty of words of rebuke and condemnation.  He has grown accustomed to being judged and disdained.  What he has not grown accustomed to are words of love, forgiveness and acceptance, which is what he gets from Jesus.  Jesus’ words of invitation, acceptance and forgiveness become the motivation for miraculous change for Zacchaeus.  He says to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  The grace Jesus extends to Zacchaeus changes his life.

Many years ago, a Japanese magazine presented a creative advertisement.  The picture of a butterfly appeared on a page.  The entire page was dull gray in color—until the reader placed a hand over the picture.  Then the warmth of the hand caused special inks in the printing to react, transforming the dull gray butterfly into a rainbow of flashing color.

It was the warmth of Jesus’ touch (through a gracious invitation to Zacchaeus) that was able to transform a shamed, lonely, hiding tax collector into a penitent individual who gives half of his possessions to the poor and who pays back four times what he had cheated from others.  It is grace rather than shame that has the power to transform lives.

To Come into the Kingdom

In Mark 10:17-31, Mark shares a story about an encounter Jesus had with a certain man one day.  In sharing this story, Mark reports the actions taken and the words spoken.  But in verse 21 Mark slips in more than just a record of the actions and the words; Mark adds an editorial comment.  He tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said….” 

When Mark tells us about Jesus “looking at him,” he is reporting what he saw.  When he goes on to tell us what Jesus said, he is reporting what was heard.  But in between, Mark asserts that Jesus “loved him.”

This isn’t as much what Mark saw or what he heard, but it’s what Mark knew about Jesus in general, and it’s what he knew about Jesus’ heart toward this man in particular.  Because of this editorial comment, we must keep in mind that the rest of what takes place in this encounter flows from Jesus’ love for this man and is an expression of Jesus’ love for him.

What is it that takes place after this declaration of Jesus’ love? 

Jesus tells him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

How can it be an expression of love to tell someone to sell everything they own and to give the money to the poor?

It is only loving if what Jesus offers is better than the treasures this man holds onto. 

When I was in college, I flipped my bicycle and my body over a car.  I landed on the sidewalk with a twisted bicycle and a separated shoulder.  Doctor cut my shoulder open and fastened the bones back together with a couple of nuts and bolts.  For the next 10 weeks, my arm was strapped to my side, immobile.  Shortly before Christmas, I was to return to the hospital to have my shoulder opened up again for the removal of the nuts and bolts.  I was apprehensive and suggested to the doctor that he could skip the surgery and leave the nuts and bolts in my shoulder.  He answered matter-of-factly, “We don’t have to operate again.  We can leave the nuts and bolts where they are, but you will never be able to use your arm again.”  His tone did not strike me as particularly loving, but the truth was.  Despite my apprehensions about the surgery, he was offering me something far better than life with an immobile arm.

On November 12, 1859, a young Frenchman named Jules Leotard climbed to a platform high above the crowd at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris, France, and performed a fete that no one before him had ever done.  Holding onto the trapeze bar, he swung away from the platform, then he let go of the bar and dashed unsupported through the air for 15 feet before grabbing a bar that had been sent swinging toward him.  No one before him had ever let go of the bar away from the safety of the platform without first taking hold of another bar, but Jules did so.  For the first time in history, a daring young man on the flying trapeze had actually flown through the air with nothing to hold onto.  That day, Jules Leotard brought to the trapeze a marvelous new sense of thrill and excitement.  It only happened, though, because Jules was willing to stop clinging to the bar.

That’s what Jesus invites this rich young man to do.  Because he loved him, Jesus invites this man to let go of the possessions he is clinging to so that he can told hold of something far better. 

After the man turns away from Jesus’ offer, Jesus tells his disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Some have suggested that the “Needle’s Eye” was a low and narrow gate beside one of the main gates of a city.  During the day, all the trade and traffic would pass through the larger main gate, but at night the main gate would be locked and guarded so that no invading army could sweep into the city.  But the low and narrow gate was normally left open, allowing a straggler who came along after dark to enter into the safety of the city walls.  This low and narrow passage was barely large enough for a man to walk through.  For a camel, it was even more difficult.  It could be accomplished only if the camel was stripped of the load it carried then led through upon its knees.

Like the camel going through the eye of a needle, the rich man who inquired about inheriting eternal life is welcome in the kingdom of God, but the only way he can get in is by taking off his load and coming through upon his knees.

The Frequent Question We Ask

Over and over again, Scripture circles back to answering a critical question for us: How does God feel about me?

The reason Scripture answers this question so often is because we struggle so frequently with questions about our worth.

Our struggle begins early in life when it feels to us that our own parents are too busy with other matters, leaving us with the impression that even our parents’ interest in us is lacking.  An article at www.studyfinds.org from November 8, 2019 reports on a recent survey of 2,000 U.S. parents (with children between the ages of 3-16) conducted by OnePoll.  More than half of the respondents (55%) admitted that they are too busy with other commitments to spend quality time with their children.  Forty percent admit to having missed out on at least one major milestone in their child’s life due to a more pressing obligation.  Even when they do spend time together, 78% of the surveyed parents said that their children had complained about the parent not being fully focused on them.

Our struggle with questions about our worth is reinforced by negative comments aimed at us while growing up.  Another survey asked parents to record how many negative versus positive comments they made to their children.  The results showed that children were typically criticized 10 times for every favorable comment, leaving them with the feeling that they are more of a pain to their parents than a joy, and wondering whether God feels the same way. 

Mark 10:13-16 reports that people were bringing children to Jesus to be blessed by him.  Here is a wonderful opportunity for these children to discover how deeply God cares for them!  But Jesus’ disciples send a contrary message.  The disciples buy into the common misconception that God is too busy with “important” matters to take an interest in children.  Mark reports that the disciples “spoke sternly to them.”  The message the disciples delivered was that the children were an annoyance to Jesus, a distraction from more important work, and a pain in the neck.

At this, Jesus was “indignant.”  Whenever God’s care is denied to others, God becomes indignant.  Whenever God’s interest in even the “least” among us is blocked, God becomes indignant.

Jesus affirms the worth of these children (and of all children) by giving his time and attention to them, even forbidding the disciples from getting in the way of bringing children to him.  And he affirms their worth by giving them the ultimate compliment, stressing that the kingdom of heaven belongs to “such as these” and that no one can receive the kingdom of God unless we do so as a child.  And he affirms their worth by taking them in his arms and blessing them.

This passage of Scripture calls for two applications from us:

1: Take to heart how deeply valuable we are to God! 

2: Strive to treat others in ways that affirm rather than deny their sense of worth.

2-Step Healing & 2-Step Salvation

It can be a great joy for persons who were born blind to gain sight, but inevitably they discover that learning to navigate through life with vision is far more challenging than they would have guessed.

In their book In His Image, Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand point out, “At a precise time in each of our lives, normally around the age of twelve months, a profound change takes place.  A person’s perception of the world moves from a predominant reliance on touch to a reliance on sight.  Touch precedes and teaches sight, until the sight cells gain dependable notions of shape and distance and solidness.  This learning process occurs in everyone—everyone, that is, except the blind.” (p. 153)

Those who gain sight later in life must struggle through the process most of us went through naturally as infants.  Yancey and Dr. Brand report the experiences of some who gained their sight later in life: “Once these patients could see, a bewildering world of size and perspective confronted them.  Previously they had a firm conception of size: an orange was about the size of a cupped hand, a face two hand-widths.  In a shocking reversal, after surgery none of these rules applied.  ‘How big is your mother?’ a researcher asked a sixteen-year-old girl.  The girl held her index fingers a few inches apart, the same distance she had estimated for the size of a book.  Her mother, standing across the room, took up about that much of her field of vision.  And the sun?  Obviously, it was about the size of a dime—who could believe the sun was larger than the earth?

“Gradually, over a period of months these patients had to learn the meaning of space, distance, and perspective.  Vertical distances remained unfathomable for a long time, for the newly sighted had no prior conception of space beyond what they could feel by touch.  Skyscrapers and trees loomed high, but how could they gauge height over ten feet, the height reachable with a cane?  One patient, observing some interesting activity on the street below, stepped off the balcony of a tall apartment building and was killed…. 

“One young girl played with a pet cat for twenty-one days, four hours each day.  Then, upon seeing a hen in a garden she squealed with delight, ‘My cat!’  After all, the thing was small and somewhat gray and it moved…. The simplest sights provoked great alarm in her: a black coat on the floor looked like the mouth of a well, a column of smoke from the chimney appeared to crack the sky in two, and the spots on her dog Muffy seemed like holes through him….

            “‘How is it that I now find myself less happy than before?’ one distraught woman wailed in the midst of her training.  ‘Everything that I see causes me a disagreeable emotion.  Oh, I was much more at ease in my blindness!’…. Virtually all patients muddled through such despondent periods for a time.  They were being asked to relearn the world, like persons abruptly deposited on another planet where the laws of physics do not apply.” (pp. 153-156) 

In the spiritual realm, we need to recognize that having our souls filled by the Holy Spirit is as radical a change for us as it is for a person to gain sight.  Learning to live by faith will be as rewarding and as challenging as it is for a blind person to learn to live by sight.

Perhaps this is why we encounter such a surprising healing in Mark 8:22-26 in which Jesus heals a blind man and the blind man describes people looking to him at first like trees walking.  Mark’s report offers a wonderful insight into the accuracy of the gospel, for what we have here is Mark recording an incident that he could not have made sense of but which fits perfectly with modern medical knowledge. 

On top of that, Mark’s report paints a picture for us of what happens not only in the physical realm but also in the spiritual realm.  The restoration of sight involves two steps: the repair of the optic capacity and the expansion of the mind to learn how to live by sight.  The miracle of salvation also involves two steps, both of which are encompassed in the word “salvation.”  The first step is to be rescued, as when a drowning person is pulled out of the water by a lifeguard.  That is what happens to us when we receive salvation from Christ.  The second step has to do with salvaging.  It has to do with fixing that which is broken in us.  It has to do with setting things right in who we are and in how we live.  It has to do with transforming our character so that we can begin living in ways that match the heart and the mind of the Savior who sets his Spirit in us.  This is no easy matter.  It is as challenging as it is for a formerly blind person to learn to live by sight.  It requires the ongoing work of Christ in our lives.

Sloppy but Genuine Faith

One day Jesus was invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, but when Jesus arrived at Simon’s home, the common courtesies that were normally extended to a guest were omitted.

Normally, when a guest arrived at a home, the host would greet the guest by placing both hands on the guest’s shoulders, then kissing him on both cheeks.  If the guest was a Rabbi, all the family members would wait at the door and kiss his hands as he came in.  But with Jesus, this was omitted.

The roads of that day were dusty tracks.  The shoes were merely soles held in place by straps across the foot.  Cool water was normally provided for the guest, to wash and refresh his feet.  To neglect such water for the washing of one’s feet would be to imply that the guest was a person of very inferior rank.  For Jesus, the water to wash his feet was neglected. 

With the omission of these common courtesies, the message becomes clear: Jesus has not been invited to Simon’s home as a guest but as a curiosity.  He is there so that Simon and his Pharisee friends can scrutinize Jesus, to figure out whether he really is from God. 

They recline at the table, eating the meal, engaging in deep theological debate, when suddenly a prime opportunity to scrutinize Jesus presents itself.  A woman with a reputation in that town as “a sinner”—a woman whom the Pharisees would never have invited within spitting distance of their dinner—enters Simon’s house.  Standing behind Jesus, in the home of a Pharisee, her emotions catch up with her.  She is suddenly paralyzed.  She just stands there.  As she does so, her tears begin to fall.  And oh how they fall!  She blubbers all over Jesus’ feet.  Feeling bad about the mess she has caused, she falls upon her knees to dry Jesus’ feet with her hair.  Thought it was considered highly improper and immodest for a Jewish woman to unloose her hair in public, she wants to clean up the mess she has made of Jesus’ feet from her tears and from the dripping of her runny nose.  Then she breaks open an alabaster jar of ointment, filling the room with the sweet smell.  All the while, she continues soaking Jesus’ feet with her tears, rubbing the ointment into his feet with her hands, drying his feet with her hair, and covering his feet with kisses.

How sloppy!  How embarrassing!  But how genuine!

The Pharisees became convinced that their scrutiny of Jesus had been answered: If he were a legitimate prophet, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him” (Luke 7:39).   

The Pharisees were concerned with propriety, and what Jesus was allowing this woman to do was not proper!  Pharisees were upright and proud people—proud of their propriety and goodness.  C.S. Lewis, though, points our attention to the danger of pride: “As long as you are proud you cannot know God.  A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” (Mere Christianity, p. 111)

Something other than pride is motivating this woman.  Victor Hugo once remarked, “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.”  That’s what brought this woman to Jesus.  That’s what overwhelmed her with emotion.  That’s what prompted her sloppy, embarrassing, genuine display of gratitude!

Jesus looks beyond the sloppiness and the impropriety; he delights in the love and gratitude that motivated her.  He tells a parable about everyone’s need for forgiveness, then he says to Simon, “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 

Ann Kiemel tells a similar story of a boy who wanted to express his love to his grandfather: “Grandfather was in the backyard, and it was midmorning.  His small grandson kept begging him, ‘Gramps, can I fix you a hamburger?’

“‘No, honey, gramps is full.  He just had breakfast.’

“‘Hmmm.  Can I fix you a hot dog?’

“‘I don’t think a hot dog would mix well with the eggs inside.’

“The child tugged on his grandfather’s arms, and burst into an enormous smile.  ‘I know, Gramps . . . a glass of water?’

 “Grandfather looked into the dirt-smeared face.  He wasn’t thirsty, but he could see the boy’s desire to do something special for the man he most admired.  ‘Yep, I think Gramps could use a drink.’

 “The child ran into the kitchen.  He happened to pick up a dirty glass from the sink instead of a clean one.  He turned on the hot water tap, instead of the cold.  As he ran out the door with the water, the mud from his hands smeared over the outside of the glass, dribbled inside, and clouded the hot water.  ‘Here you are, Gramps.’  (Oh, his enthusiasm.)

“Gramps looked at the awful glass of water, and caught the sparkle in the small face.  He drank it all, and wrapped his arms around the lad.  ‘You know, that was the best glass of water Gramps ever had.’” (I Love the Word ‘Impossible,’ pp. 92-93)

What God delights in is not our propriety, but the genuineness of our love and gratitude.

Desperate Deeds & Deeper Love

I have found that I tend to react with irritation toward people who do desperate things.

A man was standing at the side of the highway throwing clumps of mud at cars passing by.  Finally one irate driver stopped, stepped out of his car and yelled, “Hey, Man, what’s the idea?” 

Before he could say anything else, the man who had been throwing the mud cried out, “Thank you for stopping!  I tried to wave others down, but no one would stop.  My son and I were hunting, and he accidentally shot himself.  He’s over here in the bushes.  Please help!”

When people are acting their worst, it stirs up my irritation.  But often when they are acting their worst, they are desperate for help.  I see their “worst” and get irritated, but Jesus sees their need and responds to their desperation with deeper love.

Mark 5 records the story of two people who approach Jesus out of desperation.  The first is a synagogue leader named Jairus, whose twelve-year-old daughter is dying.  He pleads with Jesus to heal his beloved daughter, and Jesus hurries off with him toward Jairus’ home. 

Along the way, though, another person takes desperate action.  A woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” was already well acquainted with desperate actions.  Mark reports that she “had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had” but had only grown worse.  Not only had she been suffering physically from the consistent loss of blood, she had also been suffering emotionally.  Jewish law stated, “Any bed she lies on, while her discharge continues, will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean.  Whoever touches these will be unclean, he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening.”  (Leviticus 15:25-27). 

This left her in a rather miserable predicament.  She was virtually cut off from connection with other people, and absolutely cut off from public worship of God.  To take it a step further, tradition of the time blamed such bleeding on immorality, and required a husband to divorce his bleeding wife.  She is assumed to be immoral, and is forced into a life of rejection, ostracism, loneliness and shame.

In desperation, she had probably moved beyond the legitimate doctors to the cockamamie folk cures that were popular in her day.  One folk cure had promised healing if a bleeding woman carried the ashes of an ostrich egg in a linen bag in summer and in a cotton bag in winter.  Another promised healing if she would carry a barley corn found in the dung of a white female donkey.  Can you imagine her finding a white donkey, feeding it barley corn, then following it around for days to dig through its excrements to pull out a digested barley corn she could carry around with her?  Can you imagine the pain and anger and frustration she felt when every crazy effort failed?

Because of her bleeding, she should never have been milling about in that crowd of people, but she is desperate—desperate enough to enter the crowd, desperate enough to maneuver her way close to Jesus, and desperate enough to grab one of the tassels that hung from the edge of Jesus’ robe as he hurried along the road.

Aware of what has taken place, Jesus stops and asks who touched him. 

This question strikes tremendous fear in her.  According to religious law and social custom, she should not have touched Him.  If she comes forward, will Jesus scold her?  Will the crowd humiliate her?  As she stands there terrified her heart pounds, “Boom-boom!  Boom-boom!  Boom-boom!”

But Jesus responds to her desperate act with deeper love.  He has no interest in adding to her embarrassment or isolation.  Rather he waits for her to come forward in order to restore her.  When she comes forward, he says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 

For as long as Jairus’ daughter had been alive and loved by her father, this woman had been ostracized.  She had been legally banned from physical contact with anyone.  Anything she sat upon or lay down upon had been considered unclean.  She was regarded as immoral.  If she had been married, she had now been abandoned by her husband; if she was not yet married, she was considered unworthy of marriage.  She had been alone and lonely. 

But Jesus waited for her to come out of hiding and to come out of isolation.  When she does so, he calls her, “Daughter.”

“Daughter”…. This is the only time in the gospels that Jesus calls anyone, “Daughter,” so we need to take it seriously.  The word is a term of endearment, a title of intimacy, a word of relationship.  Jesus looks upon this woman in the same way Jairus looks upon his precious little girl.    

In Jesus, this woman’s desperate deed was met by deeper love. 

A God who fishes?

Jesus showed up in Simon Peter’s life (and he would show up in our lives) not to be merely a preacher or teacher, but to be a life-changer. 

Here is the first piece of evidence:  One morning, Jesus showed up beside the lake of Gennesaret to teach a crowd that was “pressing in on him to hear the word of God” (Luke 5:1).  It just so happened that Simon Peter and his fishing partners were on the same beach, washing their nets after fishing throughout the night but catching nothing.  Apparently Jesus’ teaching on this occasion is dynamic, for he captures and holds the attention of a crowd large enough to pack the beach.  Indeed, the crowd becomes so large that Jesus asks Simon to put his boat out a little ways onto the lake and to let him use the boat as a platform from which to speak to the crowd.  But as good as Jesus’ teaching was that day, and as committed as Luke is to record many other lessons that Jesus taught, no mention is made is made about what Jesus taught this day.  Luke determines that something far more important than a great sermon takes place on Simon’s boat that morning, so Luke leaves out any report on Jesus’ sermon and records only the interaction between Jesus and Simon Peter.

The interaction begins with a request that Jesus makes of Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon is not too happy with the request.  He complains, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  But Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law the previous evening, so Simon figures that he owes Jesus a favor.  He says to Jesus, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”    

Notice the contrast between the words of Jesus’ request and the words of Simon’s reply.  Jesus said to him, “Let down your nets for a catch.”  But Simon says merely, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 

It seems that Simon makes some quick calculations in his mind: Jesus may be a nice guy.  He may be a good teacher.  He may even be able to heal people.  But fishing?  Clearly Jesus knows nothing about fishing.  After catching nothing during the night, the prospects now are dim. 

Fishing: That’s the skill in which Simon feels that he is tops.  It’s the area of life where Simon feels that he is doing well on his own.  Let Jesus stick to his religious activities, his fine public speaking, and his wonderful healings, but stay out of Simon’s fishing business.  That’s where Simon shines! 

But holy mackerel!  When Simon lets down his nets they fill with such a great catch of fish that Simon has to call in reinforcements.  Even then, the catch is so large that both boats almost sink.    

Suddenly Simon realizes what Jesus has been up to on the boat.  He didn’t ask Simon to “put out into the deep water” because he wanted to watch a real-life fisherman at work.  He wasn’t even out there to catch a fish.  He was out there to catch Simon.  Jesus went out on that boat to teach a lesson—not to the crowd on the shore but to the fisherman on board.  The lesson is that Jesus knows Simon through and through, and he wants to be at the heart of everything in Simon’s life—not just the religious parts.

Simon is shocked and embarrassed.  He is shocked by what has taken place.  He is embarrassed to discover that Jesus has seen right through him—right into his doubts, presuppositions, and arrogance.  He says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 

But Jesus doesn’t leave.  Jesus invites Simon into a new and greater adventure in life.  He says to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

The lessons we find here are that Jesus knows us through and through, that he wants to be God over the whole of our lives (not just the religious parts), and that submitting the whole of our lives to him is a good thing, for Jesus is committed to doing great good in and through our lives.