This year I’ve noticed a pattern. I have a significant crisis of identity about once a decade. As a 10 year old in 1998, I was confronted with how I idolized certain friendships. I was homeschooled in fourth and fifth grade but maintained friendships with my public school friends through Girl Scouts. I missed feeling part of the “in” crowd. I felt like an outsider. Was I going to walk in confidence being who God made me to be or continue to feel like an outsider in a place He never intended to be my home?
As an 18 year old in 2008, I was on the precipice of major life decisions. Medicine or nursing? Peter gently asked how he fit into my medical school-missionary doctor-world traveler vision I had for my life. My pride had kept me from seeing how my commitment to our life together was far better than the accolades I was pursuing in medicine. God directed my path to nursing. Was I willing to trust that God’s plans for my life were good, and no amount of achievement would ever fill the void in my heart intended for Him?
As a 28 year old in 2018, God confronted my idolatry of self-sufficiency head on. It was shortly after our youngest was born. Our transition to three kids was more burdensome than I remembered none to one or one to two. I made a med error shortly after returning to work from maternity leave. We faced a bumpy road in church planting. I felt like I had come undone. Every identity I held dear was put under fire, but God directed my heart to Psalm 94:
“I cried out, “I am slipping!” but Your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me.”
Was I willing to slip knowing that the Author of life wasn’t going to let my steps go unsupported? Was I going to admit to myself that I make a lousy god? In each of these seasons, God in His abundant mercy was pulling a layer back from the lies I believed to be true of myself. I was not made to be self-sufficient—a self-made woman. I needed Him above friendship or reputation, accolades or degrees. I needed Him more than even the very vision of who He made me to be—wife, mother, nurse, co-laborer for the gospel. I needed more than outward appearances of goodness and wholeness. I needed a whole inward renovation... once about every 10 years apparently!
We’re over the halfway point in Luke. We know that Jesus is on the road traveling to Jerusalem for His final week before the cross. As He travels, He stops in towns along the road. Traveling on foot through the desert would warrant stops along the way. I would want a break too. In this vignette, it is the Sabbath and Jesus received an invitation “to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees.” Luke mentions that the Pharisees and lawyers were “watching [Jesus] carefully” (Luke 14:1).
Up until this point, tensions have mounted between Jesus and religious elite. They are not here to make nice, and Jesus wasn’t either. They attempted to trap Jesus in a question about healing on the Sabbath. Jesus healed and then turned the question back onto them. Then he shares stories—or parables—that highlight their hypocrisy. Luke goes on to say:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” -Luke 15:1-2
The following account of Jesus’ storytelling is beautiful. It highlights an important biblical writing technique: repetition. Jesus follows their grumbling, judgmental statements with three stories with the same theme. The first story is about a herd of sheep and the shepherd that leaves the 99 sheep in relative safety to go seek and find the one who became lost. The second story is about a woman who loses a silver coin, and has a party when she finds it. The final story is about a wayward son who returns home. His father runs out to meet him, and his older brother grumbles about the celebrations over his wayward brother. The theme of each story is about God’s character. God seeks and saves the lost.
This theme isn’t new in Scripture. It finds its roots in the the second book of the Bible:
“‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,’” -Exodus 34:6
This was such an important theme to the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures that they quote it more than 27 times. The repetition enforces the concept and solidifies its importance to the reader. And this is what they are saying to us: this is who God is. He is full of mercy and compassion. He is slow to anger. He has faithful, covenant love flowing endlessly from His nature.
This is who God is. He is full of mercy and compassion. He is slow to anger. He has faithful, covenant love flowing endlessly from His nature.
The Pharisees, lawyers and scribes were men whose career was to know the Hebrew Scriptures in and out. The problem was they missed the heart of God in how they practiced. God’s heart from day one was to bless people to be a blessing. That promise reaches back to Israel’s forefather Abraham. God promised to bless Abraham so that Abraham would be a blessing to the nations. In that blessing, the nations would know who Abraham’s God was.
“‘And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” -Genesis 12:2-3 (emphasis mine)
Israel wrestled with misunderstanding the heart of God for generations. We so often look at the heinous stories of the Old Testament and despise God, asking, “How could He have done that?” Most of the Old Testament highlights Israel’s failures to live how God intended rather than their successes. Their disobedience brought destruction, heartache, and racism. It fractured rather than healed. It did not reflect the heart of the God they said they worshipped. God sent the prophets to help them see how they misunderstood. One prophet, Joel, gives this word from the Lord after Israel‘s many failures:
“‘Return to Me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.’
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him [...]” Joel 2:14-14
God is begging for His people to come back. He reminds them of His character. He’s calling them home. In another translation it says, “‘Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.’” When enduring suffering, loss or grieving over sin, Israelites would rip their clothes in mourning. God was asking for more than physical shows of repentance, but heart-deep repentance. The Pharisees lived this charade—this pursuit of appearances. By Jesus’ day, they added numerous laws to God’s original list. Their interpretations of God’s law became an exclusionary burden to people. They were making it more challenging for people to come to God. This made the chasm between them and the sinner wider and wider. They focused on the outward appearance of holiness and neglected a heart of holiness.
Instead of radical love and calling the nations to God’s light, presence and grace, the Pharisees hoarded His love, elevated their system of “clean and unclean” above the Holy One to whom it pointed, and ultimately despised the ones they were set apart to bless. They were the ones drowning in self-centered sin. They were, in fact, the sinners; not by their standards, but by God’s! Jesus came to show them the error of their thinking. Jesus showed us a better way. Jesus showed us His heart.
Contrary to the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t afraid of the “unclean.” He wasn’t afraid to touch them, hug them, eat with them or heal them. Jesus showed us the true heart of God from the beginning. He isn’t afraid to enter the darkness. In fact, His light and holiness invade the dark places and chase that darkness and disease away. He is that Shepherd, the searching woman and that extravagant Father. He is our better Way. Just like the Pharisees 2,000 years ago, Jesus confronts me with my own tendency to be self-sufficient. Each time I walked through a confrontational season, I left seeing that His way is far better than my own. Tune in next week to hear more about God has used these seasons to help me understand this truths all the more.