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Luke 18:1-19:10 - "The Monkey Trap"
MPC 1st November 2009.
You may have heard the story before, but do you know how they say you can catch a monkey? Monkeys are fast. Monkeys are agile. Monkeys can be up the nearest palm tree before you can blink.
But the one sure way to catch a monkey, according to the legend, is to put a banana in a jar. The monkey sees the banana. The monkey wants the banana. The monkey reaches into the top of the jar and grabs the banana. But then the monkey can't get his hand out.
And so he stays there. Trapped. Because there's no way in the world the monkey is going to let go of the banana. There is no way in the world the monkey's going to loosen his grasp on the object of his desire.
And so the monkey... is trapped. And in some darker versions of the story, starves to death. Now I don't know if that's just a well worn legend, I'm not sure it's the technique that a zoo would use. But it's a great picture, isn't it? An example often used in management seminars to illustrate how holding on to stuff - even appealing stuff... can hold you back. Can trap you in the past. All the monkey has to do is let go and he'll be free. But he won't let go. Because he's so locked in by the object of his desires.
Now as we follow Jesus on his journey here in Luke's gospel and we edge ever closer to Jerusalem Luke presents us with a parable and a series of encounters. All of which one way or another raise the question of the things we hold on to. And the things we're prepared to let go in pursuit of the kingdom of God.
If you spend a few moments just thinking through the sort of jar bananas that we like hanging on to, if you make a bit of a checklist of the things we find impressive and appealing, if you think about the kind of things we so relentlessly pursue and so much don't want to let go, let me suggest a few. We value our significance; and our influence. Our young men want independence and power. We value status and impressiveness, and the appearance of control. We want to maintain our dignity at all costs. We're impressed by bigness and lavishness and shininess and newness. We're addicted to comfort and variety and convenience and flavour. We're slave to fashion and we're addicted to fun. We want friends and we want family and we want security so the enjoyment can go on and on. And we want it all now.
So the bad news is, in these four key encounters with Jesus on the way into Jerusalem, there are three things Jesus says that I think we just don't want to hear. There are three things Jesus says that overturn everything we think about what's truly valuable and worth hanging on to. That I think we usually just ignore. So we can keep hold of the banana.
Let me show you his words. First of all, Luke 18 verse 14. He's just told a parable about a religious pharisee from the in group and a despised but humble tax collector from the out group. And he says it's not the religious guy but the humble guy who God counts as righteous. Listen to his words. Verse 14.
"I tell you that this man," the humble one, "rather than the other went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
We've seen those words before, because it's not the first time here in Luke that Jesus has said them. But I wonder if you're actually prepared to believe them. That your every effort to make yourself big before God is ultimately going to bring you down. Your every effort to get ahead, your every effort to be impressive, your every effort to look spiritual and religious... it's going to bring you down. And the humble guy who's a nobody... is going to be exalted over you. The classic Steve Bradbury winter olympics gold medal story. You've gone so hard at it for so long. And some loser guy is going to come cruising through your wreckage and claim gold.
Statement number two. I mean, kids are cool, babies are fun, toddlers say the darndest cute things. But when you're impressive and you're going places and you're dignified and in control, when you're a person of standing and significance in the community and a leader in your profession, do you really want to hear this? Luke 18 verse 17. "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child... will never enter it."
I'll give you one more. I'll tell you the third thing Jesus says that we just don't want to hear. He's just met a guy history remembers as the rich young ruler, and here's the bottom line. Luke 18 Verse 25. Words we'd much rather Jesus hadn't actually said. "Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
You know, there have been people who have said, ah, but there used to be a gate they called the needle eye gate, and getting a camel through it wasn't that hard. Let me tell you, he's talking about a sewing needle. The sort I can't usually even get a thread through. And he says getting a rich young powerful outwardly impressive upwardly mobile guy into the kingdom of God... is like pushing a camel through a pinhole.
Now did you notice that in all three of those statements, the stakes are high. Because in all three of those statements, and it's a thread that holds this big section together, in all three of those statements, the question is what kind of person qualifies to be part of the kingdom of God? What kind of person qualifies for life in the age to come? What kind of person does God count as justified?
And for the Pharisee, and for some of us maybe, the answer is surprising. Not the proud. Not the religious. Not even the commandment keeper. But the humble hearted sinner who repents. The childlike faith. The one prepared to let go of the trappings of success.
Of course, you might object to that point of view, and say it's just not right. And so did you notice right through the passage, at every point there are objectors. At every point when someone's getting it right it seems there are objectors trying to pull them back. People who just aren't getting it when it comes to understanding the nature of the kingdom.
There's the scene with the grumpy disciples and the kids who are coming to Jesus. Even the disciples don't get it. I mean, Jesus is too important to be playing with kids. So keep them away. Chapter 18, Verse 15. People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus does the opposite. He calls the kids over to him and he says those famous words, let the little children come to me and do not hinder them. For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. This is what everyone's gotta be like. And the self important disciples, even they don't get it.
Not sure how your atttitude is going towards all the kids that are part of our church family, but it's easy to be impatient, isn't it? I remember one older lady in our previous church, there hadn't been kids in it for years. And as more and more families started coming to the church she got more and more grumpy because after church they'd be running on the carpet and wearing it out. And dropping cake crumbs. As if she'd rather the carpet didn't get used at all. Like in the old days. Friends, the more kids we've got running around wearing things out the better. Because the Kingdom of God isn't for the self important and the impressive. It's for people with a child like trust in the Lord their God.
There's a second rebuke. Did you notice it with the blind beggar? I mean, talk about making a fool of yourself. Talk about spoiling the parade. The crowds are gathering in Jericho, it's the next major town from Jerusalem. There's a blind man who hears the crowd going by and he asks what's happening, and they tell him, Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.
And who knows how, but somehow he knows that this Jesus of Nazareth is Jesus the king. Son of David. And he's shouting it out. Shouting for mercy. Shouting to be saved from his darkness.
Which is drawing attention to himself in a most embarrassing desperate way.
And the people around him, the parade leaders, just like the disciples did with the children... they rebuke him, verse 39. "Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet. But he shouted all the more, son of David, have mercy on me."
Here's a guy who's let go of his dignity. I mean, you don't have much of it when you're a beggar anyway, so I guess he didn't have much to lose. But here's a guy who just like the children... Jesus counts in. And not only heals him and restores his sight. But tells him that his faith has saved him.
And so it's the beggar in contrast to the rich ruler who has just walked away, it's the beggar who in verse 43 follows Jesus rejoicing. Whereas the rich ruler walked away sad.
And what does the crowd think of that? What did even the disciples think of the prospect of kids who came to Jesus? All they can do is offer a hostile rebuke. Because they just don't get it.
So let's come at it from another angle, and ask the question put all the way through this section, how do you actually approach Jesus the right way? Or, putting it another way, What's the right way to come into the kingdom of God? We've picked up some clues along the way already. From the two misdirected rebukes. But let's look again at what Jesus says it's going to take to be part of the Kingdom of God. And it's all about the monkey trap that we're caught in. And what we're prepared to let go.
Because the things we cling to, the small minded perceptions we have of what make us look big, it's those things that can potentially stop people like us from entering the kingdom of God.
So if you're following our outline, we're up to point 5, getting it right with God. And subpoint A is the one we've seen already, you've got to apparently be like a child. Luke Chapter 18 Verse 17 Jesus distinctly says "Anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." What sort of arrogant pretensions will you need to let go of to receive the Kingdom like a child?
Number 2, Jesus says, you've got to be prepared to let go of your stuff. The Rich Ruler comes to him in verse 18 and he asks him directly, good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
And because we so value the comfort and the influence and the significance and the status and the security that our wealth and possessions give us, we're uncomfortable with this story, aren't we?
The curious thing is, of course, that Jesus asks nobody else to sell all their possessions. Just this guy. Zacchaeus in the very next chapter volunteers to give half his possessions to the poor as a sign of his repentance.
But the thing Jesus is highlighting with the Rich Ruler is, what is it that you won't let go? For you, what's the banana in the jar that you've got hold of that's actually got hold of you?
Because possessions can be so like that, can't they? That can determine whether you're prepared to follow Jesus or not. The question is, how much do you let your possessions determine your decisions. See, if your possessions like your house and your mortgage and if your social position and your desire for prosperity are the things you base your life decisions on, then I want to suggest your possessions are actually possessing you.
And so the young guy I spoke to recently who was tossing up whether his life should be spent serving Jesus in ministry and whether he should be taking the costly choice of stepping back from his career and heading to Bible College, he said, I've got to keep paying my mortgage. Which maybe means his house owns his future. And the kingdom doesn't. And it's not that there's any problem with owning a house or even a hundred houses. It's just that if you hold on to your possessions like that you're just like the monkey with his hand stuck in the jar.
This rich ruler comes to Jesus, he says, I haven't committed adultery, I haven't killed anyone, I haven't stolen, I haven't lied, I've honoured my mother and father.
But ultimately, there are some other commandments. Like not worshipping idols that draw your heart away from the Lord your God. Jesus said it before. You can't serve both God and money.
So this is his way of saying to the rich and powerful guy... make up your mind. Deal or no deal. Your kingdom or my kingdom.
Here's the test. Sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Let go of anything holding you back and then come follow me.
And when he heard this, verse 23, he became very sad. Because he was a man of great wealth. And instead of following Jesus, walks away.
How hard it is, says Jesus in verse 24, for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
Easy enough for the blind beggar to enter the kingdom. Because he follows Jesus joyfully. Nothing to lose, everything to gain.
But also, when you're rich like us, good to notice that Jesus says in verse 27, not impossible. What is impossible with men is possible with God.
And so you've got Zacchaeus. Immensely wealthy. But prepared to drop everything including his dignity and climb a tree like a little kid - and finds the doors of the Kingdom wide open.
And Chapter 19 verse 7, Zacchaeus, the wealthy but vertically challenged tax collector, gets to have Jesus home to dinner. Maybe it's only me, but I kind of like that daydream of having someone famous come to your house. I vaguely remember the Queen did it once on a Royal visit. Carefully scripted tea and scones with a carefully chosen ordinary Australian. Has to be one of life's most memorable moments.
Here's the thing. Zacchaeus is rich but hugely unpopular. Chief tax collector, which means he sits at the top of the corporate pyramid of Roman agents who take Jewish money and funnel it back to Caesar. He's the guy who in spite of his wealth hasn't got a hope of buying his way into high society.
And yet while Jesus has said it's harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pop through the eye of a needle, here's a camel doing exactly that. By letting go of his dignity and his position of Roman authority and clambering up a tree in his desperation to catch a glimpse of Jesus. And Jesus says, today I'm coming to your place. The people don't like it. Jesus going to eat with a sinner. But somehow Zacchaeus knows it's worth letting go of the lot... to throw his lot in with Jesus.
See it's interesting isn't it? Even in our own wealth and materialism there are some things we'd give everything for in an instant.
Such a sad memorial notice in Monday's paper this week. Shane. Taken from us aged 29. My darling son, I miss you so much. I would give up everything I have if only for one fleeting moment I could hold you again. Just one more time.
And you can understand it, can't you? You can see why someone would do it. Everything. Every dollar. Every investment. Every stock bond and share. Every investment house by the beach. It would be worth it. You can understand why someone would trade all that for just one more moment with someone so loved.
See, I wonder if sometimes we don't really think through the equation? Of what it's worth letting go for the sake of being declared righteous by God. For the sake of eternal life. Not just one more fleeting moment of it. For the sake of being counted in the kingdom of God?
We've been working backwards this morning. So I want to finish with the parable Jesus told that Luke used to start this section and set the tone. It's a parable that in a sense brings all the examples together.
And it's a great summary.
It's the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector that starts in Luke 18 verse 9.
There's just been another parable about a widow who keeps crying out for justice. Crying out for God to finally come good with his righteousness. To deliver his verdict.
And in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector he does.
It's a verdict on Israel. It's a verdict on us.
Pick it up in verse 9. "To some who were confident of their own righteousness, and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable." Do you know anyone like that? Who maybe sneers at the simple, impatient with children, tries to shut up blind beggars; who'll complain that Jesus eats at the house of a sinner?
To people like that, Jesus tells this parable. "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, upright, respected, and very religious. The other a tax collector. Who nobody really likes.
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself. His favourite topic. "Thank you God that I am not like other men. Thank you that I'm not like the robbers and the evildoers and the adulterers. Or even like this tax collector." Thank you that as I look around in church and see all the second rate types that I am first rate. "I fast twice a week, and give a tenth of all I get." I have been a member of this church since 1947 and have never missed a week. I give money to missions, I've made jam for the street stalls, and I'm upright and honest and I'm faithful to my wife.
But the tax collector... stood at a distance. Looking at his feet. He would not even look up to heaven, verse 13, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
The blind beggar. "Son of David, have mercy on me." Saved.
The sneering crowd complaining. He's gone to the house of a sinner. Saved.
Well, here's why. Jesus has spelled it out already. Verse 14, I tell you, this man, the one who stands at a distance beating his breast, this man rather than the other went home justified before God. this man is the one God declares to be righteous. Because he lets go of the arrogance and he lets go of the pride and he lets go of the aspirational stuff. And he humbles himself.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. And he who humbles himself will be exalted.
There's the ultimate monkey trap, isn't it? There's the banana we want to hold on to. Your dignity. Your pride. Your sense of self importance and of being somebody. Friends, can I assure you our church is not free of this stuff. Of people who want to strut their stuff - maybe in subtle ways. Maybe not so subtle. The superior job. The superior education. The superior piety.
Jesus says, everything you exalt in, before God you've got to let it go. Because it's the guy who comes with nothing, it's the guy who cries for mercy, it's the guy who comes humble...who gets the warmest welcome. Jesus says, the son of man has come to seek and save the lost. Not the impressive.
So maybe it's time to let go some of the stuff that's holding you back from the kingdom. Whether it's an attitude of pride. Whether it's hoarding your possessions which are really possessing you. Whatever the banana in the jar that you're holding so tightly. Maybe you need to see that it's actually holding you. And you need to let go.