Luke 16:14&15 “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.’”
You often hear sincere religious people saying how men and women in the world are ‘hungry for Jesus’ that they are anxious to hear the message of the New Testament and become Christ’s disciples, suggesting that all that is needed is for the gospel to be simply explained to them and they will immediately embrace it. Yet in these verses in Luke’s gospel we have described for us the response of the Pharisees to what they’d heard Jesus saying, and they “were sneering at Jesus” (v.14). Were they on the edges of the crowd, the wind blowing against the speaker, taking away his words so that they hadn’t followed what he was saying merely hearing snatches of the sermon? No. Luke tells us that they “heard all this.” Were the words of Jesus particularly mystifying and apocalyptic, veiled words . . . confused words? No. He had been telling them the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons. He had told them the parable of the shrewd manager. They had heard all that he had said and they have understood only too clearly his message, and they “were sneering at Jesus.” He had spoken to them of God as a Father who will pardon and receive the most stupid and wasteful of men who take all their inheritance and blow the lot in a month or two of wild spending. When they come to themselves and return stinking and penniless to the father they have offended he will show his grace to such a person. God welcomes home such repentant sinners and reappoints them as his sons again. It was when the money-conscious Pharisees heard that message that they “were sneering at him.” It was for them absolutely shocking to teach that the righteous and just God will show pity and reconciling grace to a son who splurges all his inheritance on wild living. But Jesus had also made the folly and wickedness of living for money spectacularly clear to them. He said, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (v.13). They sneered at that message because, Luke tells us, “The Pharisees . . . loved money” (v.14).
So we don’t find the crowds of Jesus’ day flocking in their thousands to become his disciples. After all his teaching, and invitations, and tears, and transparent, holy, loving life, and all his miracles, just 500 people, of which 120 were men, truly followed him. The majority did what the Pharisees did and they listened and understood and sneered at his claims, and warnings and invitations. They said that he came from the wrong place; could any good thing come out of Nazareth? They said he kept the wrong company; he was a friend of law-breakers and immoral men, that he went to their homes and ate and drank with them. “You can tell a man by the company he keeps,” they said, and they dismissed him. He was low life; he was a carpenter’s son; he had not gone to the rabbinic schools. They said that the power he had over men was demonic in its origin; he owed it all to Beelzebub. They cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him! Release unto us Barabbas!” As he hung on the cross they taunted and mocked him in his suffering. We do not see the world running after Christ. It was sneering at Jesus.
So when people are invited to our plain, new covenant Christian services and to our sadness some of them grumble then, of course, we must take their criticisms carefully. They can complain about the hard pews and then we will put cushions on them. They can grumble that no one talks to them, and we will try to welcome them before they leave. They can say that they did not understand the sermon, and we will seek to make our sentences short and clear and any special Bible words we use we will explain. They can grumble that the sermon is too long, but we will rarely preach for more than 45 minutes, briefer than lectures at the university. They can complain that the service lasts for over an hour, but it is all over in 75 or 80 minutes at the most, shorter than a game of rugby.
They can point out all the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the lives of some of us who claim to be Christians, but we do not preach ourselves. We are poor advertisements for the Lord Jesus. Some of us can talk the talk, but we acknowledge that some of us fail in walking the walk. All we can plead is that we’re not saying to you “Look at us and how we have made it! We’ve got it all together.” Rather we say, “Look to Jesus . . . Behold . . . Behold the Lamb! He is the true God and everlasting life.” We trust in him because we need daily forgiveness and daily strength from him. Yes, we admit that there are hypocrites in the congregation, alas, and in the pulpit too. Yes, there are counterfeits, but in many ways they are a proof of reality. You cannot counterfeit a three pound note because there are no genuine three pound notes. Yet you can counterfeit a five pound note and a ten pound note. There must be the genuine, or there could be no counterfeits. There could not be hypocrites in the church if there were no genuine Christians. John Owen said, “God never more honoured his true prophets than when there were false ones.” Your duty is to come to Christ and show what a true Christian is.
There are external things we can change in Christian churches. What we cannot do is to adulterate or dilute the message of Christianity itself. We cannot minimize the person of Jesus Christ. He is God incarnate and that fact is non-negotiable. We cannot alter our conviction that men and women need atonement for their sins. The very nature of God himself requires that pardon and forgiveness come to sinners and through the shedding of blood, and Jesus Christ is that Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We cannot change the means that that atonement avails for sinners, and that is through our personally entrusting ourselves to Jesus only, believing right into the Lord Jesus Christ, becoming one with him, going to him just as we are without any other plea and resting in him alone, pleading his name, asking God to forgive us because of the life and death of his blessed Son.
We cannot minimize the requirements God makes of those who thus become disciples of the Lord Jesus, that we are to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbours as ourselves, that we fear God and keep his commandments, that we have no other gods before him, that we make no idols and fall down before them, that we don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, that we remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, that we honour our father and our mother, that we do no violence against another, that we do not commit adultery, that we do not steal, that we do not bear false witness and tell lies to others, and that we do not covet but that we are contented with what God has given us. These are God’s standards for those who name his name. In keeping them we show that we love our neighbours. We are under obligation to make these divine requirements clear whenever they are found in Scripture, and they are found everywhere in the Bible.
Now we believe that it is the sum of all those non-negotiables of the Christian teaching and the Christian ethic that are the reason people reject the Christian faith, that their public criticism of other reasons why they don’t like our worship and our preaching and our lives is only their camouflage for a heart hostility that is saying, “We will not have this man Jesus of Nazareth to rule over us.” It is always an inconvenient time for men and women to change the direction of their lives, turning from serving the world to serving the Lord and becoming disciples of Christ. They can find such reasons when they are young, when they are newly married or living with someone, when they become parents, when they are middle aged or when they are old. There will always be plenty of reasons to quote, at every stage of life, why men and women cannot bow and follow Jesus Christ. They don’t want him because there are things they love more, and for which they are unprepared to reject. It is always too much sacrifice for them to abandon their views of what life is all about, and the things they live for and take up a cross and deny themselves and follow the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. If they sneered at him, then they will readily find a dozen reasons for rejecting us, but strip away all the cosmetic objections and their real sneering is focused on Jesus Christ himself, as it was when he walked the earth, and claimed that he was one with God, and that no one could come to the Father but by him. He preached the parable of the Prodigal Son, and Luke tells us, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (v.14). Now what follows is fascinating because it tells us of Jesus’ response to those who sneer at his life and teaching. What does he say? Does he apologize? Does he change? Does he ask them to share with him their ideas of true religion?
1. THE RELIGION OF THESE SNEERERS WAS NOT FOCUSED ON GOD BUT ON THEMSELVES.
Christ analyzes these scoffers with these words of warning, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts” (v.15). Their religion wasn’t centred on the living God, how they could serve him and please him, but on their own lives, on their achievements, on their morality, on their good works, on what they had done. What they did was the ground of their hope of finding acceptance with God. In their minds they were planning their entry to heaven with all the trumpets sounding a fanfare, and it was all their own accomplishments that would give them that magnificent entrance. Jesus told this class of religious people, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men.” In other words, it was important for them to have the approval of their friends and family. Those people all looked at them and applauded, “What a wonderful life! Who could ask for anything more? If anyone was going to go to heaven it would be that person.” They justified themselves in the eyes of men.
Let me tell you of a man who sought to justify himself before God. You read about him and his brother in the book of Genesis and the fourth chapter; “Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour” (Gen.4:2-5). They might have both been sincere in what they brought to God, but sincerity itself is not enough. There is the sincerity of the cannibal, and the sincerity of the Nazi. Two men went to God with an offering. Do you see the response of God? The first man, Cain, brought to him the fruits of the soil. He had cultivated a field and ploughed and sowed and watered and fertilized it, driving the crows away. Finally the crop had matured and at the harvest he’d brought a sheaf of wheat to God, the fruit of his endeavours. The second man, his brother Abel, brought to God a lamb from his flock, the best he had; and the lamb was offered to God in sacrifice. The fruits of the soil, Cain’s offering, was rejected by God. The lamb, Abel’s offering, was accepted. Why? Cain brought to God as the basis of his acceptance before him, the product of his work and ingenuity, something that had sprung from his own endeavours and his own efforts. Cain approached God on the basis of bringing the very best that man could produce. He expected to be accepted by God on the basis of his achievements. Abel, on the other hand, turned from any confidence and hope in himself and in his own ingenuity, and he brought to God the firstborn of the flock, the best lamb, one without blemish and out his hand on its head and sacrificed it. Abel realized that if he were to stand before a holy God, it had to be through the sacrifice and mediation of what stood for someone better than himself, someone flawless who did not need a sacrifice for his sins. Cain brought, say, his prize pumpkin, the gold medal winner, and gave it to God but all our best efforts are marred by sin.
I have told you about Bishop Taylor Smith having a haircut and the talkative barber not allowing him a word in edgeways. Finally at a lull in the monologue the bishop said to him, “Are you a religious man?” “I don’t know if I am,” said the barber, “but I always do my best, and I think God can ask nothing more from anyone than he do his best.” At the end of the haircut the bishop paid him and then said to him, “You’ll soon need a haircut yourself.” “Yes, I will,” the barber replied. “Sit down. I’ll cut you hair for you,” “Oh you couldn’t cut my hair,” said the barber. “Yes I could,” said the bishop, “I’ll do my best.” “Ah, your best wouldn’t be good enough for me,” replied the barber. “True,” said the bishop, “and your best isn’t good enough for God.”
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands.
Could my tears for ever flow,
Could my zeal no respite know,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save and Thou alone” (Augustus Toplady).
We need a Saviour to save us even from our best works. We need to flee from them and hide in Jesus Christ who alone could open the gate of heaven and let us in. Everyone to-day who comes to the one true and living God is either coming on the basis of self-justification pleading his own works, or they are coming through the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Christ. Remember another two men whom Jesus saw in the temple. The Pharisee was justifying himself before God on the basis of his tithing and praying and fasting and good life, while the other man could not even look up to heaven and could only plead as he beat his breast and looked down at the dust, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He had forsaken all hope in any achievement of man’s intelligence, and brain, and capability. It was all tainted. He cast himself on mercy alone.
“If you come to God as a braggart comes,
In the pride of your own way,
Then the God of grace will hide his face
And send you poor away.
“If you come to God as a beggar comes,
With the plea of your bitter need,
Then the King of kings will give good things
And make you rich indeed.”
Where does many a man’s journey to heaven founder; where is he shipwrecked? It is on this rock – these words of Jesus that God knows his heart. This man thinks highly of himself, and men praise him, but God knows his heart, even better than the man himself knows it. That is what Jesus says in our text. God can evaluate every thing that the man has done, why he has done it, to what end, as well as all he has failed to do. Pharisaic religion was outward, standing on street corners and praying, giving noisy donations of lots of coins into silver offering trumpets, and fasting with ash on his forehead to show he was fasting. But God doesn’t look on the outward appearance; he doesn’t ask for a religious makeover. Our hearts are all important to him, that dispositional complex at the very centre of our lives, out of which come all the main issues of life. God has set eternity in our hearts. God judges our hearts to be deceitful and wicked, hearts of stone, cold hearts lacking love for God, every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts tainted by evil. Man judges the outward appearance but God looks at your heart, and the glory of the gospel is that it starts from within us, by gently changing our hearts. The new covenant promises a new heart. He will remove the stony heart; he will encourage all the desires and longings of the news heart; he will give you energy to love him and love your neighbour as yourself.
Don’t you see that your heart must be dealt with? To discover and live the life of true religion you must have a new heart, one that will never think in terms of justifying yourself in the eyes of men but will find all its justification in God’s mercy to us through Jesus Christ, that mercy that creates in us a new heart and a new spirit.
2. THE LORD JESUS DENOUNCES THE VALUES OF UNBELIEVING MEN.
Jesus didn’t stop there. He was even more blunt; he said to these Pharisees, “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight” (v.15). The truth of these words appears on every side of us. We have only to look around Wales today and mark the things that men value the most and so often they are phony and base. What are they? I will tell you; getting something for nothing, getting money from the state by claiming benefits and allowances for all sorts of fake disabilities, how clever the world thinks it is for doing that! Getting drunk every week-end both men and women, sleeping around on one night stands, getting revenge on people you dislike, stealing and thinking you’ve got away with it, these are achievements in the eyes of many, bragged about by men and women over their pints to their friends. That is the life of millions of people and we read of it in the newspaper each day – cheating, lying, theft, blasphemy, the pornography industry on the web and in the magazines, the trafficking in young women, carrying knives, taking drugs, gambling, fiddling taxes, Sabbath breaking, dog fighting, cruelty to animals, rape, driving without insurance – and all such activities highly valued among men. God declares it all to be vanity, yet these are considered virtues in our godless age. They are promoted by our macho culture. There’s conversation that promotes it, and music that promotes it, and drugs that promote it. You hear the talk in school or in college or in the office on a Monday bragging about the week-end and the criminal escapades. God says this, that it is detestable in his sight. He is a righteous God. He knows and he doesn’t shrug in indifference. Then he would be as monstrous as the people who behave like that, and infinitely worse than them. He would be cosmic malice, but he is not. He is light and purity and joy and goodness and peace. All things are naked to the eyes of him with whom we have to do., and sin is detestable to him.
And what is highly valued in God’s sight? I will tell you, and the list is so foreign to our ears you will almost want to laugh and mock; modesty, purity, a gentle and peaceable spirit, integrity, honesty, kindness, holy affections, trustworthiness, someone who will make sacrifice rather than break his word, someone who will lose money rather than let down someone he has promised to help, faithfulness, a forgiving spirit, turning the other cheek, self-control, righteousness, goodness, bearing other people’s burdens, a refusal to malign or spread stories about another, reading the Bible and coming to hear it preached, being unashamed of Jesus Christ, trusting in him, repenting of your sins. How many care for these things in Aberystwyth? Very few. Yet God in the Scriptures tells us in every chapter how important these things are to him in men and women who live and move and have their being in him. Here are two different ways of life, two different religions, one is the religion of the flesh and the other is the religion of the Holy Spirit. The differences between them are enormous and appaling. What God calls good, men find detestable, and what men detest, God calls good.
A man once said to a Christian friend, “Well, God did not need to sacrifice his Son for me. I’ve never done anything I need to be ashamed of.” My friend said to him, “What if God were to perform a miracle now, and you found there was a screen the size of a placard, hung around your neck and on this big screen appeared the ten worst things you have ever thought or said or done, and you could not remove that screen, and you could not hide it. You had to wear it walking along the street, and standing in line in the Post Office, and when you went to work, and your children and your spouse read it at home as you sat down to eat together. You could not take it off at night, and the congregation read it on Sundays. Then how would you be?” My friend said to the man, “If God did that for me, then I would become a hermit, and order my groceries on line, and never leave my little house. I wouldn’t want anyone to read those words and see what a rotten heart and dirty deceitful mouth I have, and how I have hurt others.”
If you or I would be uncomfortable with other people knowing our detestable sins then how could we go into the presence of the God before whom angels hide their eyes? In his presence not only the ten worst things we have thought and said and done are revealed but the whole catalogue of our lives is seen for what our life has been? Would we want to stay in heaven for a minute longer? Wouldn’t we cry, “let me go to hell, anywhere out of this white light, away from where I stand defiled and undone in the presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit”? You do need God’s pardon, and you need the righteousness of Christ to cover you, if you are to remain in God’s presence for ever.
It is not the love of God we need to be in glory but his righteousness. Imagine that I am in debt ten thousand pounds and I have nothing to give the money-lender and soon I will be in court. Dad says to me, “You are looking very worried.” “I am in despair,” I tell him and explain it to him the crisis I am in. Dad says, “Don’t worry; I love you.” “Dad, it’s not your love I need, it is your money, to clear my debt and get out of the hands of this man.” My father goes to his drawer and pulls out his cheque book and writes a cheque for ten thousand pounds made out to this man. I am secure. I am covered. I am given a receipt and it’s my assurance that everything is settled.
What makes me secure in the day of judgment, when God reveals my heart and my tattered rags of righteousness? Then it is just one great event. It is the atonement of the Son of God. His sacrifice which appeases the wrath of the God who finds my sins detestable. His blessed life of righteousness which God freely and lovingly imputes to all and upon all who believe. Jesus thy blood and righteousness, my beauty are my glorious dress. Bold shall I stand in that great day for who aught to my charge shall lay? My debts are all covered; the work of Christ in making atonement for them is finished and complete. How do I know? On the third day he rose from the dead. He was raised for my justification. It is my divine receipt. “Accepted,” says the God who knows our hearts. “Accepted,” says the sin-hating God to whom our sins are detestable.
I am going into eternity depending on righteousness, but not my threadbare personal righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ. I am not going into eternity depending on the love of God. I am going into eternity depending on the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ my Saviour. That is what I want to know in every one of you. That you are facing the throne of God, that open ended encounter with the mighty Creator, and your plea is that his son Jesus, loved you and gave himself for you. He made all your sins without a single exception, not the most vile and not the most trivial, nothing whatsoever omitted, to meet upon Christ. He judged and condemned them in him, and so I say to you boldly, but reverently, my God is so righteous. He cannot—he dare not—demand payment twice for the same sins, once on Golgotha at my bleeding Surety’s hands, and then again at mine. This is the Gibraltar I have beneath my feet that nothing can shake. On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. I am going into the presence of a holy God depending on his righteousness for my salvation.
Lord Radstock was the Christian who did so much a hundred years ago to further the gospel in Russia. He was speaking to an officer in the Norwegian Army urging him to profess Christ, and that officer replied saying what has very often been said to us, “I could not keep it.” Lord Radstock replied, “My dear friend, I’m sure you are right. Any person who thinks of the Saviour in the neuter gender cannot keep it. But even if you had said, ‘I could not keep him,’ I would say you are still right; you could not keep him . . . but he can keep you.” “But, Lord Radstock,” said the officer, “if you knew the godless officers’ mess in which I have to live, you’d soon discover that it’s utterly impossible for any man to live for Jesus Christ there.” He was thinking of all the things that are detestable in God’s sight . . . and there are many of them.
Lord Radstock took a pen from his pocket, and holding it upright on his hand, he said, “Why doesn’t it fall?” “Because you are holding it.” “If I cease to hold it, will it fall?” “Certainly.” “If I continue to hold it . . . ?” “No.” Then Lord Radstock opened his Bible at John 10 and read verses 27-30, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.”
“Now,” said Lord Radstock, “when you receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Shepherd you become one of his sheep don’t you?” “Yes,” the officer agreed. “Then tell me, do you consider the sheep is responsible for keeping its shepherd, or is the shepherd responsible for keeping his sheep?” “Oh,” said the officer, “the shepherd is responsible for keeping his sheep.” Lord Radstock replied, “My Lord the Good Shepherd says that if anyone receives the Lord Christ and commits himself to him as his sheep, Christ pledges you his word that nobody shall pluck you out of his hand.”
Three years later Lord Radstock met that same officer again. He walked up to him and said, “I want to bear testimony to the truth of those four verses you read to me from John 10. For three years Jesus Christ has held me fast amongst all that’s been detestable with whom I’ve had to live.” You have this choice of sneering at Jesus, or of serving Jesus. It seems to me that those are the only choices before you, either you become one of the cultured despisers of the gospel or you become someone who embraces the gospel. You have to choose. Here is the parable of the Prodigal Son; here the immeasurable grace of God is shown in receiving back into his family this repentant rebel boy. Will you sneer at this parable or will you allow the running Father to embrace you and restore you to his loving arms?
26th June 2011 GEOFF THOMAS