Justified w/ Walter Kim
Welcome to the Gospel Reverb podcast. Gospel Reverb is an audio gathering for preachers, teachers, and Bible thrill seekers. Each month, our host, Anthony Mullins, will interview a new guest to gain insights and preaching nuggets mined from select passages of scripture, and that month’s Revised Common Lectionary.
The podcast’s passion is to proclaim and boast in Jesus Christ, the one who reveals the heart of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And now onto the episode.
Anthony: Hello, friends and welcome to the latest episode of Gospel Reverb. Gospel Reverb is a podcast devoted to bringing you insights from Scripture found in the Revised Common Lectionary and sharing commentary from a Christ-centered and Trinitarian view.
I’m your host Anthony Mullins, and I’m delighted to welcome this month’s guest, Dr. Walter Kim. Walter serves as the current president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a position he has held since January 2020. He also serves as teacher-in-residence at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, after ministering for 15 years at Boston’s historic Park Street Church.
He has spent nearly three decades preaching, writing, and engaging in collaborative leadership to connect the Bible to the significant intellectual, cultural and social issues of the day. He serves on the boards of Christianity Today and World Relief, and on the Advisory Council of Gordon College. Walter received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, his M.Div. from Regent College in Vancouver, and his B.A. from Northwestern University, and he is a licensed minister in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.
You have a lot going on, Walter. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you for joining us today. And for those in our listening audience, who may not be familiar with you, your family, and your work, we’d love to know a little bit about your story. Would you mind sharing?
Walter: Of course, thank you, Anthony, for the privilege and joy to connect with you in this context.
Yeah. I think one of the things that would be important to know is the story that got me to this country. I’m a son of a refugee and immigrants. My father had escaped from communist China and literally crossed the river in a barrel with his family to get to South Korea, where he eventually met my mother.
And they had gotten married and then moved to America in the mid-sixties at a time where you couldn’t do simple things like Google, what does it mean to be an American? You just get over here. And America was at a time where there had been, not too long ago, the assassination of President Kennedy and the turmoil of the civil rights movement that was peaceful but met with violent opposition. And the country was just going through a lot, and it was really difficult for an immigrant to figure out: what does it mean to be American when being an American itself was contested?
And that sense of being caught in a search for identity is in some ways a part of my journey to Jesus. So, I was born in New York City, but we moved around a lot when I was a kid. And so even a particular location was difficult for me to identify with. So as a family, we’re trying to figure out what does it mean to be American, to hold onto our Korean heritage? What does it mean to be located in one place, as we found ourselves for a variety of reasons, moving?
So, when I first heard about Jesus in my high school years, there was a sense that I was coming home. There was a deep sense in which the search for identity and place and location was finally met.
And it was met in Christ, the one who transcends any particular location, any particular story, and yet in his presence is deeply personal and transformational. And in many ways, this kind of immigrant experience has helped me understand the nature of the Christian life, that we are in the world, but not of the world or the story of scripture. That from the get-go, the Abraham story is a story of migration to the promised land.
And we have this image in 1 Peter 2, of all of us, brothers and sisters, that we are aliens and strangers in this world. So, there’s this sense that has been always a part of my own personal journey, but it’s also been a part of my faith journey of, what does it mean to be faithful in the world, to participate robustly in the redemption of the world? But at the same time, to recognize that’s not our ultimate home, that we have a home elsewhere. And that’s in some ways been extremely redemptive in my own sense of personhood.
The call to ministry happened during my college years, and I ended up on staff with Cru at that time and was in new England, where I met my wife. We eventually got married and decided to go study at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. And once again, there had an experience that really helped us bring together different parts of our lives.
It was very international experience being on the Pacific Rim. We encountered Asian Christianity in a much more robust way than we had ever previously. The international global context of Regent College in which people from a wide range of nations were represented, but also a very eclectic denominational mix of Regent College.
And it really was eye opening. It was expanding of our sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and the beautiful diversity that exists within the global church. It also helped me bring some discipleship to my mind. I think because my conversion was such a radical kind of conversion into faith, I never really had a theology and discipleship of the mind. I had this kind of passionate conversion to Jesus. I wanted to be a missionary of some sort. I wanted to be a campus worker eventually, or a pastor.
But it was during my Regent college years that I had this increasing awareness that God actually was concerned about discipling my mind, not just my heart, engaging me, not simply in evangelism— though that is absolutely important to the proclamation of the gospel—but the implications of the gospel for all dimensions of life. And that’s where I decided maybe I should pursue this PhD.
I have academic interests and inclinations, maybe I should work within a university context, a secular university context, and try to be a faithful witness to Jesus in that context. And so that’s when I went off to pursue my degree at Harvard. And yet there was once again another twist—being involved with a church, Park Street Church (a 200 plus year old church that has been very much a part of American Christianity and evangelical Christianity) and attending there as a graduate student. And then eventually both my wife and I came on staff at Park Street Church and served as pastors there. We discovered at Park Street, a vision of the local church that was in touch with the University (Boston being of university city), but deeply engaged with the issues that all cities face, an urban, complex context.
And so, we were as likely to see in our pews a world class physicist sitting right next to someone who was homeless, just coming off the Boston common, looking for a warm place to sit for a few hours. It was a beautiful place to be both a congregant then eventually a pastor.
And it was this cohesion of the gospel in word and deed, the life of the mind and kind of this act of faith that was transformational of the heart that really recaptured for us a sense of all the things that potentially could happen through a local church. So, the Lord had used these various nudges in my life to redirect us into local pastoral ministry. And Park Street was also where our two kids were born and raised (I have two kids). My wife and I have very much appreciated doing life together in ministry at Park Street.
And then eventually here in Charlottesville. We moved when this position with the NAE arose in 2020 and have stepped into it with all the complexities that represents.
Anthony: Yeah. As I listen to you talk, Walter, I can’t help but think that God is preparing us always for what he’s prepared us for.
And your past has prepared you for what you’re doing now. And I can only imagine—you took on this role in January 2020, and then, oh, this little thing called the pandemic. And I can only imagine how that is added complexity to what God is calling you to do, but we are thankful for you.
Listen, before we dive into the five Bible passages for this month, I would like to ask you a question. Your work with the NAE has you interacting, collaborating with many church denominations, Christian organizations. What would you say is the greatest challenge? And I know there are many, but what would be the greatest challenge facing the church of Jesus Christ and what gives you hope in the face of that challenge?
Walter: I think as you said, Anthony, there are many challenges, and that’s always been the case that the church has faced many challenges.
And in many ways the challenges are different depending on where you are located in the world. So global Christianity and its various aspects will differ in terms of what persecuted church in east Asia or various parts of the middle east may be encountering is different than the church seeking revitalization in Europe, Western Europe.
And that itself is different from what the church is experiencing in Africa. And the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa in which theology is barely keeping up with the actual growth that’s actually happening.
It really depends on where you’re at, but I would say there are some similar themes that I would say is very much true of the American context, that is true in various ways regardless of where you are in the world. And that is holding together the personal and public dimensions of faith. I think for many of us, our encounter with Jesus is profound and transformative on a personal level.
And so, we understand and have an imagination for dimensions of life in which prayer is a part of discipleship in which ethics and the ways that we handle personal relationships or marriage relationships, family dynamics, that’s an understood part of the Christian life. But when it comes to the role of Christianity in civic engagement or society at large that becomes much more complicated.
And I think the church in its various locations often struggles with: I get the personal dimension. Jesus has changed my life personally and so I need to be committed to transformation ethically as a person or sharing the gospel with my neighbor, person-to-person.
But the public institutional, societal transformational impact of the gospel or what the local church means? Not simply as an amalgamation of individual Christians who are helping each other individually walk better with Jesus, but what does it mean to be a corporate entity called to a community context, living within a national social context? That becomes so much more difficult and it’s in part why oftentimes in different parts of the country in America and certainly throughout the world, faith always runs the risk, Christianity always runs the risks of being overly politicized, of becoming a part of power structure.
European history represents this. Different challenges that exist in the global church represents this, and the tensions that we experience in American evangelism certainly represents this. And that all comes back to what I feel to be a weakness, that is often the case for followers of Jesus. We get the personal transformation; we’ve experienced it. But we have a much harder time understanding how Scripture would order our corporate life, our communal life, and our national life, especially in a pluralistic society.
Anthony: Yeah. Here in America, we think individualistically, don’t we? And I appreciate the fact that in a role, like what you have, that we have to think beyond just the person and think systemically and corporately and what that looks like to be a good neighbor.
It’s like the lawyer in the parable, The Good Samaritan, who’s my neighbor? And Jesus turns it on its head. Are you being a neighbor? And ultimately, I think that’s what the collective church has to ask. Are we being a good neighbor?
It’s that time! Let’s look at the five passages that we’re going to unpack together.
Luke 17:5-10 “Keeping the Faith” Proper 22 (October 2)
Luke 17:11-19 “Lord, Have Mercy!” Proper 23 (October 9)
Luke 18:1-8 “Persistent Prayer” Proper 24 (October 16)
Luke 18:9-14 “Justified” Proper 25 (October 23)
Luke 19:1-10 “At the Table” Proper 26 (October 30)
I’m going to read our first pericope which is Luke 17:5-10. This month, we’re going to focus on the NASB. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper22 on October 2 in Ordinary Time.
5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 But the Lord said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.
7 “Now which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him after he comes in from the field, ‘Come immediately and recline at the table to eat’? 8 On the contrary, will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’? 9 He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? 10 So you too, when you do all the things which were commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’”
If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed was our Lord Jesus’s response to the apostles request for more faith. Walter, what is Jesus ultimately communicating or was he communicating to them and revealing to us by the holy spirit?
Walter: Yes. This is such a challenging passage because we all have experienced moments in our prayer life in which we utter, like the father, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief,” in this sense, in which we are asking God to even help us pray better.
But I’d like to put this passage in its actual broader context. So, when I hear that the apostles say to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” Why are they making that request? What is the challenge that was just issued that would cause them to say, “I don’t have the faith for it”?
And if you look at the passage that precedes this (that gives it its context), it wasn’t a passage about prayer. In other words, they weren’t asking for more faith in order to be able to pray better so that they could take this mustard seed of faith and do miraculous things like tell a Mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. There were two issues that were raised in versus 1-4 of chapter 17 that caused the apostles to say, whoa, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to need more faith, so increase our faith.
One of the issues was if you cause any of the little ones to stumble, then it is better for you to be cast into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck. And then Jesus goes—that’s already challenging enough—then he goes on to say, if your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times, you forgive them if they come back seven times and ask for forgiveness.
And so, there are two things, two challenges that Jesus raised up that forced them to say, just increased my faith, because I can’t do that! And one is our solidarity with those people in need, the vulnerable, that we would put nothing in their way to finding Jesus.
And so, the little ones. Of course, the little ones being caused to stumble probably literally also included little ones, children. So, causing children, not to have anything that would prevent them from coming to Jesus. I think we could affirm that.
But I think in the context of Luke more broadly, Luke has such an incredible theme of hospitality for the vulnerable that appears again and again throughout the Gospel of Luke, this extraordinary concern Jesus has for the outcast, the marginalized in society. It seems to me that one of the things that Jesus is doing here, he’s saying if we are causing any (whether it’s the little ones who are young and vulnerable for that reason, or the marginalized in society who are vulnerable for other reasons) to cause any of them not to come to Jesus, to stumble, to prevent them from coming to Jesus brings judgment.
And then the second thing is, the need to forgive others. I think those two things present perpetual challenges to us, don’t they? The need to have such care for those on the margins, the vulnerable, the weak and not to put anything in their way from coming to Jesus and the need to forgive others.
I think we’re very quick to harbor bitterness, to harbor things, to keep score, no wonder the apostles say increase our faith. How can we do this? And it’s only then as we turn to Jesus, in the humble recognition that we can’t do this kind of work of forgiveness or solidarity and concern, we’re going to need Jesus to increase our faith.
Because this imagery of the Mulberry tree is one in which in the ancient world, the Mulberry tree was a metaphor often because the deep root systems of Mulberry trees. It was representation of just that, something so deeply rooted and entrenched that it would be hard to move.
And in this case, it seems to me what Jesus is getting at, is saying, with these challenges, you’re right. You don’t have the faith to be able to have that kind of love and compassion and the ability to forgive. In order to uproot those things that are so deeply rooted in your life, you’re going to need to come to me. And even if you have just the smallest bit of dependence upon me, I will move towards you.
Anthony: Jesus has such a passion, does he not, for the least, the last, and the lost? And Lord, thank you for your gift of faith and forgive us when we haven’t upheld these dear ones to you. Help us with our unbelief.
Walter, if you were preaching this pericope to your congregation, what would be your focus from the text? And maybe we’ve already heard parts of it. But what would be your focus and why?
Walter: Yeah, I would focus in on that forgiveness requires faith and faithfulness, the challenge to uproot what is deeply rooted in us.
And I would follow up on this theme because I think all of us can safely say—I’m not a prophet, but I’m going to make a prophecy right now—I think every single one of us has a broken relationship in our life where we need to be forgiven and to forgive, and we are all profoundly challenged and unable.
We have reached a wall, an impasse so much so that we just maybe have ignored the relationship or let it die. Quietly walked away from it or are railing against it in anger. I would say if we were to preach and our congregations were to be freed with the forgiveness that comes in Christ and then the forgiveness that can come through Christ toward others, that this could be absolutely transformational to our family and community lives.
Anthony: Reconciliation is God’s idea and it’s a good one! And he always acts first out of forgiveness and an abundance of reconciliation. And it’s why I was telling my wife recently, how anytime I see reconciliation happen in a movie, for instance between a father and a son, I’m just stirred deep in my soul. Because this is what it looks like in the life of the triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit, and what a joy it is to participate in that.
Let’s move on to our next passage, which is Luke 17:11-19. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 23 on October 9. Walter, would you be willing to read that for us please?
11While He was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as He entered a village, ten men with leprosy who stood at a distance met Him; 13 and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed. 15 Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, 16 and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 But Jesus responded and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? 18 Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.”
Anthony: Walter, I’ve long believed that proximity tends to breed compassion. Jesus sees their affliction up close and personal and has mercy on them. What can we learn about proximity or maybe said another way, incarnational living, especially in light of this passage?
Walter: Yeah. The passage speaks to the presence of Jesus. Doesn’t it? He is present to the 10 men who had leprosy. He is present to the Samaritan. There are so many things about proximity that in the original audience’s hearing, would’ve struck them as extraordinary crossing of boundaries. Jesus was a boundary-busting person.
And so, it begins with, he was on the way to Jerusalem. So, it requires intentionality. He is on the way. And this theme of this journey to Jerusalem, Jesus is setting his face toward Jerusalem. So, whatever it means to be proximate to someone it’s going to mean an intentionality. It will require you to choose to move in a certain direction. And the fact that he was proximate to a place like Samaria, that would permit Samaritan to come to him, is also, I think, an issue of intentionality in putting yourself in places that were unexpected—that Jesus would be proximate to Samaria.
And as folks may know that the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews was fraught with animosity, deep suspicion that was even theologically grounded. Samaritans were viewed as heretics. And the Samaritans returned the favor and viewed the Jews as themselves being heretics.
They were profound conflicts between these communities that at times came to physical blows and battles. So, there was a deep division that Jesus crossed. Then of course we see the division that even seemed to be one sanctioned by the law. So they were at a distance, these men with leprosy, because they were told to be at a distance the law required, a distance in order for purity to be maintained.
And so, this sense of boundary-busting must have captivated the disciples as they were following Jesus for how many boundaries can this man cross in order to minister to people. And I think there is for us a profound challenge. We have to be intentional. We have to find the spaces and places in our lives that we would not normally go to because well, respectable Christians wouldn’t go there.
And what does it look like to become proximate to that? And then when we do, there is even working through the things that maybe our religion and Christian subculture has taught us, oh, you can’t go there. You can’t touch that. You can’t be around that. And so that’s itself being challenged, challenge to our own instincts.
And so, as we do these things, we keep in mind, however, the ultimate desire. And that is to glorify God and to bring redemption in this world, this language of healing, this language of giving glory to God. Thanksgiving to God speaks to the powerful presence of Jesus in this world and the redemptive power that heals not only body, but also soul.
And once again, the kind of reconciliation that happens not just with the body being healed, but with the relationship being established. So, the proximity that was not permitted between the Samaritan and holy spaces, as well as the lepers and holy spaces now is being bridged. They are right at the feet of Jesus.
Here’s this Samaritan once a leper having all the bridges that Jesus crossed toward him, now he has crossed them in response and come back in humble submission to God. And that’s just such a beautiful picture as well as a challenging picture of what it means to pursue an incarnational ministry.
Anthony: Yeah. And all we have to do is look at Jesus. We sometimes act as if God cannot look upon sin, but Jesus dined with sin, embedded in all of us as sinners, as we’re going to see in a later passage, he moves toward it to heal it in himself once and for all. Hallelujah, praise God.
It’s hard to believe, Walter, but nine out of the 10 (90%) of the healed lepers didn’t return to glorify the Son of God for their received healing.
What is going on and how might this be a cautionary tale for us today?
Walter: You know that sense of gratitude is coupled with submission there. I think there’s something that strikes me about the Samaritan that is so challenging. It’s not simply that he gave thanks, but that he fell on his face at the feet of Jesus So it is gratitude with submission that is so profoundly challenging. It’s in his case, gratitude that probably led to the submission. I would like to reverse it for the 90% that didn’t come back; it’s probably the case that they were not submitted to God that led to their ingratitude.
And the coupling of these two works in both directions, that the ability to say, thank you, puts us in a place where submission is a sensible response. Such a good God. I thank him for this. I’m able to submit. But in this paradoxical way of life, our unwillingness to submit makes us ungrateful people because we can’t give God thanks. We have to say that we did this on our own, that we’re on our own, fine.
And I think something of that is probably going on. We weren’t there to interview the nine that didn’t come back, but the one that did come back and the way that the narrative describes the attitude of the one that came back, couples the submission with the gratitude.
And so, my hunch is that part of the critique of the nine that didn’t come back is that they did not have a submission coupled with gratitude.
Anthony: Let’s transition onto our next passage, which is Luke 18:1-8. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 24, which is on October the 16.
And it reads,
1Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not become discouraged, 2 saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect any person. 3 Now there was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he was unwilling; but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect any person, 5 yet because this widow is bothering me, I will give her justice; otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unrighteous judge said; 7 now, will God not bring about justice for His elect who cry out to Him day and night, and will He delay long for them? 8 I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
And Walter, I’ve often heard this text preached something like this, be prayerfully tenacious, like the persistent widow. And I think we both agree that it’s good to be persistent in prayer.
But what can happen is it gets communicated that we somehow have to twist God’s arm or maybe even condition him to be good to us. If we get enough people praying, we can bum-rush heaven so we can wear God down and he will relent and give us what we want. What is a Christ-centered exegesis of this passage?
Walter: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s a really true observation that prayer is something that everyone will always feel guilty over, right? You, if you want to humble someone, you just ask them, so how’s your prayer life going? And that will inevitably produce the response, oh man, I should be praying more or better or differently, and I need to work on that. And I throw myself into that very camp.
But I think again I would like to put this parable in context, and that is typically when a parable is told, it’s told it as an illustration, like every good preacher, there’s a point. And then you want to illustrate that point. So, for instance, when Jesus was asked, who is my neighbor, he illustrates the point by just telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.
So, the question that arises in my mind when I read this parable, we hear it read, is what’s the issue that Jesus is trying to illustrate. Why did he tell this story? What’s the point that he’s trying to get across? And again, if you go to the previous passage, there’s this description of the coming kingdom of God that is not yet. That we all are living in this space of the already and not yet. We know that the kingdom of God has come, but we want it to come in a certain way, in a certain package.
And they thought, followers of Jesus at that time, the disciples thought it would come in a certain way, and it would result in the vindication of Israel by the annihilation of the Roman empire and the restoration of the land. And so, they were all waiting for that with expectation for justice to be done on earth.
But of course, the justice would look a certain way and come in a certain time. And I think it’s so appropriate for us to ask the question, what is it that we are longing for that would make sense of this parable? What is it that we deeply desire in life? And is it the coming of the kingdom? Is it that justice would be done on earth?
Because the nature of the widow’s request is for justice, it’s longing for things in the world to be put right. And again, it’s really important to see the context of the widow being the one asking this, like the leper in the previous pericope that we had discussed. So, all throughout the old Testament, the widow, the orphan, the stranger among us and the poor, there’s these four categories of people that represent the marginalized in society, those in most desperate need of justice.
So, what’s going on in this passage? I don’t think it’s primarily intended to be a guilt trip for Christians to pray better, longer, harder. I think it’s completely misguided to think in those terms. For two reasons, one here, this is an argument from the lesser to the greater, even if there’s injustice in this world, unjust judges that prevent the widow from getting her due.
The point here is God is not like that. So, whatever the parable is trying to say, is trying to say that we have a generous God who loves to hear us, but simultaneously so much of what Scripture teaches us over and over again in its stories is that it’s profoundly realistic. On the one hand, we have this amazing picture of the generosity of that he is not like to unjust judge, that he is generous in how he wants to restore the world, that he thinks of the widow, the orphan, the alien among us, the poor, and he has them close to his heart. He cares deeply.
On the one hand, we can say how much more, if God does this for us sinners, now that we are right in Christ, that he would listen to our prayers, that he would treat us without condemnation, that he would enable us to say, Abba father, all of that is true.
And yet it’s also true that we are not fully there yet, that we are waiting for the ultimate vindication and restoration of new creation and new earth, new heavens, and the fulfillment of the kingdom. And in this world, there is a kind of waiting and yearning and longing that we have. And I think the parable is trying to get us into that place.
Not of guilt. But of longing, longing for God to make things right, longing for the love of God to be fully manifest. And we know that longing will always be left slightly unfulfilled in this world. It awaits the fullness of God’s kingdom at the consummation of God’s redemption in this world. And so, creation, we, as God’s people, we all grown with longing.
I find this a beautiful invitation to long, to seek for justice, to have confidence in God’s love and to bring all those things in prayer.
Anthony: No, that’s so good. I appreciate what you said about the longing while also seeking justice, because if we’re not careful as we think about this inaugurated kingdom, the already not yet, we just wait around for the, not yet. So, we’re just waiting for Jesus to reappear, but there is an already aspect as if we can be active participants in the justice that God is bringing to his good earth.
What else do you want us to see or know from this pericope?
Walter: Yeah, that final question is haunting, isn’t it?
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? We hear this phrase, so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good. Sometimes as a critique of Christianity or maybe certain forms of Christianity, they’re just concerned about one’s eternal salvation as if it were something of an eternal fire insurance so that you don’t go to hell.
There is a legitimate place for critique of a vision of Christian life that is narrow and only focused on getting people saved and in this narrow way, but that’s a caricature. I actually think, in order to be any earthly good, you actually have to be heavenly minded because Earth’s problems are too great that they would overwhelm you and you will end up either being swamped by it or choosing to ignore it. If you do not have a hope greater than earth and to understand what the end point, what the finish line, is supposed to look like actually gives you strength to untangle yourself from sin and to engage in the race that is set before us.
I think that final question really puts on its head the critique, oh, you’re so earthly, heavenly-minded, by basically saying in order to be earthly good, be heavenly-minded. Remember that there will be a day when the Son of Man will come back, and all of this will be consummated.
The question is, will he find faith on earth?
Anthony: That is haunting for sure.
Let’s move on to our next pericope, which is Luke 18:9-14. It’s the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 25, which is on October the 23rd. Walter, please read it for us.
9Now He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and began praying this in regard to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, but was beating his chest, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other one; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Anthony: What great, Christlike, humility. We know by Jesus’ own words to the brothers on the road to Emmaus that all Scripture points to him, to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
And I’m curious, Walter, what does this particular text confess and teach us about God?
Walter: I am struck by how this text showed up in my life one day in a very literal sense. When I was pastoring at Park Street Church in Boston, we have the sanctuary that I would often go down to and sit in the front row during the work week.
And I would just try to weave in prayer during my day as I was either preparing for Sunday or a particular meeting that evening and one day in preparation for my time of prayer, I actually opened up this passage and read it and realized here I am sitting in the front of the sanctuary praying. And I’m wondering, Lord, are you trying to tell me something here? Am I this Pharisee in my self-righteousness and perception of my place in ministry?
And it was really a profoundly reflective moment for me, as I stopped and asked a question, what confidence do I have? What justification do I bring? What resume do I try to show God to impress him that he should listen to me?
And I think, I hope I was able to say, I don’t think of myself in a fashion that would seek to put other people down, like as their swindler and crooks and adulterers. I didn’t open up my prayer that way when I was sitting in the sanctuary, but I do something similar and that is, I do present a resume to God to try to convince him that I am worth his time, that I actually should get an answer to this prayer or that I really should have this kind of fruit in my ministry. And I think a lot of us do that.
We often try to prove to God he should listen to us. And in that regard, maybe more subtle, maybe more sophisticated, maybe more justifiable at least to us, but in the end, not justifiable to God, we do this. And in the end, it makes light of the fact of the full justification that comes through Christ. That enables us to say, no, it’s not on your merits, that you are able to pray this prayer. It’s on Christ merits that you can pray this prayer.
And so, one thing it reveals to me is it reveals to me how warped my view of God is. That I would think I need to bring my resume to him in order to prove to him, he should answer my prayers and how poor that poorly that means I view God in his generosity, in his quickness to listen in his attentiveness, to my brokenness.
And I think over time, it sometimes gets worse. When you’re a new convert, that your sin would cause you to pray the prayer of the tax collector, God be merciful to me, the sinner, like you just came to Christ. That I found my prayers less like the sinner, the longer I became a Christian and walked with God because I had this sense I should know better. I should be better. I should do better.
And for those reasons, God should listen to my prayer. In some ways, I think we never graduate from the tax collector. We are always in a place of saying, Lord have mercy. If I sin, I proved yet again, my need for Jesus. And in that way, come again as a fresh convert to Christ.
Anthony: I think it was A. W. Tozer that said, and I’m just paraphrasing, that the most important thing about a person is what they believe about God, because it affects everything your marriage, the way that you work vocationally, and of course, the way that we come to God. And if we see God, who is love, it’s the very essence of who he is, and he loves us so dearly that nothing that we could do would change his love for us, then we can be real authentic with him. Be merciful to me, the sinner.
But I grew up in a legalistic environment, and I was really good at self-righteousness. I got to be honest with you. But there seems to be a warning here.
Anything else you want to flesh out about that and how we should take heed?
Walter: Yeah, I think of this passage, and I’m reminded of a quotation from C.S. Lewis. In some letters he had written about prayer, and he makes this comment: The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’
And I think that’s profound and apt to what this passage is trying to get at. And that is even before we enter into the depth of prayer that we should pause and say, may it be the real eye who speaks to you of real sense and awareness of who I am, and may it be the case that I discover the real vow, the real you Lord, who you really are.
And it’s in that way, that prayer becomes not just a discipline of the Christian life but becomes the Christian life itself. It becomes the place in which we be the real us before the real God, so that we could experience transformation.
Anthony: That was a fantastic Lewis quote that I had not heard. We’ll source that and put it in the show notes. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to ponder that for a while.
Let’s transition to our final pericope of the month. It’s Luke 19 :1-10. It’s a Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 26 on October 30.
1Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. 3 Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and he was unable due to the crowd, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree in order to see Him, because He was about to pass through that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 And he hurried and came down, and received Him joyfully. 7 When the people saw this, they all began to complain, saying, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!” 8 But Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I am giving to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I am giving back four times as much.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
This is such a beloved encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus for many reasons. But what stands out to you?
Walter: Yeah, it’s funny that you used the word stand, what stands out because that was part of the story, right?
That he was unable to see Jesus, because he could not stand tall enough. And there’s something about this story that makes it so, as you say, beloved. It shows up in flannelgraph Sunday school lessons for little kids, as well as the most probing and prophetic sermons in challenging adults in a life of radical generosity and repentance.
So, you know, several things. This imagery of sight strikes me of throughout scripture. We have this notion of seeing things, truly seeing things as they really are. And I’m struck by that because of a science study that I had recently run across that differentiated the perceptions of the world between wealthy people and working-class people, and that they had literally determined, the researchers, that wealthy people and working-class people actually see the world differently.
In other words, they’re more attentive and responsive to different things. They could be looking at the same exact scenario on the street or in the center of the city, but actually pick out different features of that scenario. And one of the things that the study concluded was wealthier people actually see empathy less. They perceive other people’s pain less than working-class people.
So, there is something very profound in this passage that the wealth of Zacchaeus, like perhaps the challenge that exists for all people who are privileged, enables you to look at the world in a certain way and ignore certain problems, because they’re not a part of your world, you don’t pick it out. If this is a part of your daily existence, where the next meal is going to come from, you are able to look for and look at and see the world in a particular way.
I think one of the deep challenges in this passage is this imagery of sight. One, wealth prevents us from seeing the world in its needs because we are so comfortable, and it really doesn’t take a lot of wealth to make us comfortable.
We in America might think we’re middle class but compared to the world’s standard that puts us on the 1% right of the world’s wealth. So, one of the things that I would say is, what are the circumstances in your life? What are the conditions in your life that prevent you from seeing well?
And then there’s something about Zacchaeus’ personhood. He was short in stature. And then I would ask the question, what is it about our particular life? Our personality, the quirks that we have, maybe even our bodily existence, like Zacchaeus, that prevents us from seeing Jesus. Those two things I think can be pretty discouraging because my goodness, our conditions are our conditions, our circumstances, that’s what we are in.
How can we overcome this? Is it really the case that privilege prevents us from seeing the world with empathy. And is it really the case that our personality quirks or biological inclinations prevent us from seeing Jesus? That may be the case. Yes. We are fallen sinful creatures, and that prevents us from seeing God.
But the beauty of the passage is that God could say for the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which is lost, and God can redeem us out of our circumstances and grant us compassion and empathy when that’s not natural to our circumstances. He can redeem us in our inherited sin and fallenness, or even in the fact that we might have some kind of biological predisposition toward sadness in life or anger, like we are just predisposed.
And yet God says that too can be redeemed. So, there’s just so much in this passage that resonates with our life circumstances either personally or where we are in our station socioeconomically, and that we have the possibility of redemption for all of that.
Anthony: I chuckle, who invited who? Jesus says, I’m going to come to your house. I’m not sure as Zacchaeus had his house in order or what condition it was. But I think in some ways that’s a wink to the incarnation that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. He came to us. And one of the aspects of Jesus’s transforming ministry, that I think it’s under-talked about, is his meal-sharing or table fellowship.
Now, in this particular passage, it doesn’t reflect that. But in other telling of this story and the Synoptics, we see they had a meal. How does table fellowship fit into the incarnation? And for us, how do our efforts to join the Spirit in incarnational living look like table fellowship?
Walter: Yeah, there’s some profoundly human instinct that God has created us with, that we want to celebrate over a meal those things that are important to us. So virtually every culture that has some kind of marital ceremony includes a meal reception that follows, whether it’s a simple meal or an elaborate meal.
In my case, when Tony and I got married (Tony is a Taiwanese American), we had this elaborate meal that was set up. that was a part of our culture, that we had in commemorating our wedding and of the wedding feast.
We have this imagery of in Scripture of what’s going to happen, and the great unveiling of Christ in his bride in heaven, the church, it is this wedding feast, the gift of communion. This gift of a meal that was given to the church is, I think, a profound celebration of redemption of a covenant. We celebrate the covenant of marriage with a wedding feast. We celebrate the covenant of salvation with a wedding feast.
But there’s another aspect of meals that I think in the ancient, near Eastern context, would’ve been on people’s minds. And that is, meals not only celebrate great occasions, they solemnize this cessation of violence.
So, a lot of treaties were made over a meal. And that was because there was a certain protocol with a meal. You had to put your weapons aside at the entrance of the tent or wherever you end up having the meal together. And by using your hands in the meal, oftentimes in the middle east, you actually would eat [with your hands].
And I actually sat around a table like this, where there was this big pile—as I was traveling in Jordan, we had this kind of traditional Palestinian Jordanian meal. And there were a bunch of men surrounding this massive—it was like about five feet wide plate of food, a pile of rice with chicken and yogurt. And you were to use your right hand, grab some food and ball it up.
What does that mean? If you’re using your right hand to eat food, you can’t have a sword in it. There’s this beautiful picture of celebration, of course. But there’s a beautiful picture of making peace that the table fellow fellowship is a cessation of violence.
It’s the declaration that I give up this way of violence. And I’m stepping into this place where I make myself vulnerable. I leave my weapon aside. I use my hand to fill it with food and not a sword. And that puts me in a place of vulnerability. And if peace does not rule, then I’m in deep danger.
And I think that’s also a part of this beautiful picture of table fellowship that we say to God, I put aside my sword, my independence, I make myself vulnerable to you. And I yield myself in a place of trust and peace making. And to couple that with celebration and joy knowing that Jesus brought salvation to us, is a bringing together of these various aspects of what a meal could mean in the ancient world. And it was also family time. Right? You have family meals.
Anthony: Yeah. If meal sharing is peacemaking, may we eat more together, for crying out loud? Amen.
Walter: Amen to that!
Anthony: And it’s also a bit of a critique. The fact that many families have stopped eating together. It’s no longer a core value of the family units. And that’s another discussion for another day, but how important it is to break bread together for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost, what a Christological tour de force mission statement.
Tell us about it.
Walter: Yeah. This notion that we have Jesus coming to us seeking us. The classic come to Jesus alter call where we, sometimes physically, depending on your tradition (maybe it was a Billy Graham crusade), we literally get up out of our seat. And with “Just as I Am” being sung in the background, we come to Jesus.
And even the secular world has used that phrase, “this is a come-to-Jesus moment.” And yet what we have here is Jesus coming to us. He is the one that invited himself to Zacchaeus’s home. Yes, he is the one that came to seek and save the lost. This Christological statement of God’s initiative, God’s grace, that even when we didn’t have the wherewithal, the sensibility to invite Jesus, he invites himself into our lives.
And that there is grace that is that great that he would seek us out when we are stuck and unable to seek him. And that too is a great challenge for how we think about church, right? If Jesus did not wait to be invited, but invited himself, if Jesus sought out, then that has some profound implications for how we live out our church life.
Do we simply wait for people to come to us, to attract them to our church or do we figure out how to get church outside of our walls, into the communities such that inviting ourselves into one another’s [home], into our neighbor’s home would be such a sensible thing that our neighbor would respond by saying, “Oh yeah, of course. I didn’t think that, but yeah, I would love to have you over!”
That actually requires a certain kind of relationship of trust that you could invite yourself over. And I think that’s for us, what a missiological challenge. Do you have friendships with those who don’t know Jesus to such an extent that it would not be weird for you to say, “Hey, I’m coming over with a plate of brownies. Let’s hang for a bit.”
Anthony: Oh, that’s so good, Walter. I am very grateful for you for the calling that is upon your life, for the role that you have. We are in prayer for you. My church tribe is Grace Communion International, and we are a member of the National Association of Evangelicals.
And you’ve gotten to know us a bit. I’m putting you on the spot a little here, but is there anything you would say to our listening audience that might be a blessing to our hearers?
Walter: Yeah, we are clearly in a time of deep contention. It seems like we’re in an infection moment, one generation giving way to another generation, cultural conflicts that are roiling, not only life in America, but internationally. You pick the country and there is a crisis of some sort.
And it seems like this is not simply some mild growing pains that people are encountering. This really does seem like a consequential generationally defining moment. And my word of encouragement is God knows.
A recent Barna study came out that said up 42% of pastors are considering resigning because of how difficult life has been these last few years. And one of the things that we will need is this vision of longing for the kingdom that can sustain us through what seems to be prolonged injustice. This sense that even if we can’t see Jesus, he sees us. This sense that we come to God in which we just bring our real selves before him. And so, what my word of encouragement would be, yes, you are encountering challenges, but your labor is not in vain. And you will one day experience the full vindication of God himself.
Anthony: That’s a good word. That’s a fantastic way to end and praise him, that he’s faithful and pursues us to the end.
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