Following His Footsteps: “Tough Talk about Tenderness” – Luke 17

lombardi-2Anyone who knows anything about the NFL knows the name Vince Lombardi, who took the Green Bay Packers in 1959 and shaped it into the league’s most formidable organization of the 1960s, while he simultaneously fashioned the lives of men that would be a part of the next half century in the history of the sport. On any list of names of the most influential coaches, Lombardi’s name usually appears at the top or near it. He was known as a tireless leader with strenuously exacting standards. It is worth noting that in fifteen seasons of play, his teams never had a losing season. He led the Packers and later the Redskins, before he died of cancer in the autumn of 1970, at the young age of 57. Though that was many years ago, Lombardi still holds the highest playoff winning percentage of all time (.900). He was posthumously inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, and was universally acclaimed as highly deserving of that honor.

Bart Starr once said that Lombardi “turned men into champions and a rabble into a team”. Here is the thing people don’t say unless you specifically ask them to recall circumstances – it all came at a price. Lombardi pushed his men, expected much, and was known to have a very forceful speaking voice in a locker room. He explained plays to the team in such a way that there was no mistaking of exactly what he wanted. He didn’t mince words and his language wasn’t often appropriate for small school children. Yet, at the same time, he took a special interest in some disadvantaged players, and worked with extra vigor to help them secure a path to their own success. He clearly cared for his players, but he especially cared that there were high standards and absolute fairness on and off the field. By all accounts, he wasn’t a politician and probably learned his motivational speaking at the “General George Patton School of male motivation” – tact wasn’t his best quality.

I do not mention Lombardi for his personal faith (of which I have no knowledge) but rather because he illustrated with his work life the reality that one could be tough for a purpose, and yet tender toward those who had special disadvantages. I imagine that any coach, if he or she wants to transform players, has to find keys to motivating them to give more than they think they can, and yet be encouraged that there is a great purpose behind their talent. Coaches have to be men and women of vision. I suspect the first day Lombardi watched the Packers at practice he wondered if they could ever become a team that could win more than 50% of their regular season games, let alone the Superbowl. Let’s face it: good coaches focus on possibilities and press forward toward them.

If you agree with that assessment, you have to admire another leader who also transformed men – from long before Lombardi – for His toughness in life coaching, even as He offered tender help to the disadvantaged and hurting. I have in mind the greatest life transformer ever to visit the planet – Jesus of Nazareth. Here is the truth the emerges from a look at the Savior in Luke 17…

Key Principle: Jesus was both tough and tender. He showed particular kindness to those who were rejected, hurt and weak – but made clear He detested smugness and stubbornness.

We have been following the “harmonized journey” of Jesus’ life for many lessons, and as we look more carefully at our Savior, we see both aspects of His character revealed more completely – His toughness and His tenderness. In this lesson, we want to examine the interplay between the two character marks as they become plain in His teaching. We will do it by posing five contrasts from the chapter:

First, notice that the tender heart of Jesus toward the young made Him tough on those who thoughtlessly corrupt them (17:1-2).

Luke recorded a teaching Jesus offered to His followers that was more a comment than a fashioned truth. We don’t know what prompted the comment, but Luke remembered…

Luke 17:1 He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! 2 “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.

Whatever the Master saw that day as He traveled, He made clear that “stumbling blocks” would continue to be part of society, though they were terrible. He used the term “inevitable” – the only place in the Gospels that word appears. What
“stumbling blocks” did He speak about?

The term Luke offered was “skándalon” – the word from which we get the term “scandal” – but that is not the best translation of this idea. In fact, the term as used in the sentence at the time was properly “the trigger of a trap” (or the mechanism that caused the closing of a trap on the unsuspecting victim). Lexicons favor a definition like “the means of stumbling” because they more appropriately stress the means by which one is entrapped, i.e. the device used to ensnare them.

Jesus made the point that there will continue to be those who will deliberately bait traps for the innocent in order to ensnare them until the end comes. Human trafficking of young innocents is not a yesteryear phenomenon. The organization Rescue: Freedom provides two year old statistics, which are the newest I could find on the subject, and they note:

• There are an estimated 27 million people in slavery globally (U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, 2012).
• Globally, there are 4.5 million victims of sex slavery (ILO 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labor).
• Between 100,000-300,000 U.S. children are enslaved in sex trafficking each year (Ernie Allen, President of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).
• In the U.S., the average age of recruitment into sex slavery is 12-14 years old (Polaris Project: Comparison Chart of Primary Sex Trafficking Networks in the U.S.).
• The CIA estimates that 45,000-50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States. Approximately 30,000 trafficked annually from Southeast Asia, 10,000 from Latin America, 4,000 from the Newly Independent States and Eastern Europe, and 1,000 from other regions (O’Neill Richard, A. DCI Exceptional Intelligence Analyst Program.1999).
Approximately 20% of all internet pornography involves children who are victims of human trafficking (National Center for Mission & Exploited Children).

Jesus didn’t normally offer such colorful commentary as “they’d be better off dead” – but in this case that is exactly what He said. The Master made plain that those who deliberately draw in and ensnare the innocent and unsuspecting are a form of low life that will face their just deserts in the end. His tenderness toward the ensnared led Him to offer harsh commentary on the trapper. Make no mistake about it: every pusher who has ever sucked in a son or daughter to their poison, every cultist who has ever tricked and brainwashed a young man or woman, every pornographer who has ever demeaned the beauty of sexuality for a buck – all will be judged by the One Who made plain His disgust at their indifference and uncaring heart. Jesus was tender on the ensnared, but that made Him especially tough on the hunter or the innocent.

In a second teaching, Luke showed the tender heart of Jesus toward the stumbling follower made Him tough on the one who was stubborn about forgiveness (17:3-10).

The record included Jesus still speaking to the disciples…

Luke 17:3 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

Jesus plainly told His followers that the one who did wrong but repented of the wrong and sought to be made right was to be restored, provided they repented of their wrong. This followed a saying on exploitation for a reason. It is very easy to see that if Jesus’ followers are too lenient on forgiveness, it will be easy to take advantage of them. A careful reading of the words of Jesus forces the Bible student to conclude that Jesus told us to be willing to take that chance – because forgiveness was THAT important.

Jesus did not say that everyone was entitled to endless restoration without repentance, but rather that with repentance the restoration had to remain unconditional in the heart of His follower – even if the offender should have known better based on past experiences. There is no way that was or is easy, and the disciples responded…

Luke 17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

No one wants, now or then, to be taken advantage of by another person. No one wants to be a “sucker”. Yet, Jesus said we should risk being taken advantage of because we are known as those who will forgive the person who repents. That is hard to hear, and even harder to obey.

The disciples assumed the secret to following this command was the addition of a great “amount of faith” bestowed by God. In other words, they thought something additional needed to be provided by GOD in order for them to take their ego-driven characters and embrace those who were repeat offenders that repent. Jesus told them they were WRONG – God didn’t need to send them anything additional. They had what they needed within already.

First, remember our classroom definition of “faith” is “seeing it the way God says it is”. When I have “faith”, I am walking in trust and belief of God’s record, taking as truth God’s expressed view of the situation. Forgiveness of an offensive but repentant disciple and seemingly endless patience with them was not going to require a special gift from God – but rather the simplicity of “seeing it the way God said it was”. Listen to the words of Jesus…

Luke 17:6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea; and it would obey you.

Don’t get distracted by the way Jesus made His point here. He isn’t interested in having followers do tree removal – that wasn’t the point. If He wanted a grove of mulberry trees in the ocean, He could have put them there. He was being absurd to make a very important point: the tiniest faith could have incredible results. It isn’t simply the AMOUNT of belief that makes us powerful and impacting – it is faith in the right Person or thing. If we believe what God says, even a little bit, that belief becomes incredibly energizing and powerful.

Truth doesn’t get stronger because more people believe it – it simply helps people more effectively when they don’t resist it. Kicking against the right answer not only exhausts the kicker, it can easily deceive them into thinking they are progressing when they are, in fact, expending energy and getting no closer to solving their underlying problems. Exhausted, they end up in the wrong place, sad and often cynical that an answer even exists. Welcome to modernity where the popular is often mistaken as the true. This is the reason that learning to distinguish the truth from contemporary mythology is so vitally important. You don’t need a new amount of power from God – you and I need to trust what God’s Word already says. Even a small amount of applied Biblical knowledge, trust and belief will bear results.

Let me give you a simple example: If you want to be healthy, but you decide that you can eat anything you want as much as you want and never exercise at all – as long as you eat one raw carrot every day before 8 AM – all the belief in the world won’t make that true. If you act on that self-invented truth, under normal conditions you will eventually gain girth and lose health. On the other hand, if you decide that a careful diet and some consistent amounts of exercise will help you be a healthier person, you don’t have to really understand how it all works, you just have to accept it to the point that you are willing to consistently act on it. You don’t need to become a nutritionist, nor do you have to hire a personal trainer – but the more you move into the path of living out the truth, the healthier you can expect to be. It isn’t a sure thing, because in the fallen world we live in, there are other factors that affect your health – but in general the point is the same. The less you resist living the truth, the more powerful the truth becomes in your life. The more you live in the land of your own made-up rules – the less things work out.

This is the fundamental problem in our modern view of things like the family. I recognize that some of our congregation grew up in single parent homes. I recognize that some are raising children in them right now. Yet, in the interest of making that seem less awkward, I will not “normalize” that situation. I want to be clear – God designed biologically, emotionally and spiritually a home to consist, whenever possible, of both a father and a mother for the child. No amount of polling in America will change that truth. The more we resist that and try to make other forms of “family” just as “normal” the longer we will prolong the mythology that will harm children. I am not asking those of you who had one parent to curse the memory of your home. I am not suggesting that those who grow up in single-parent homes are somehow destined to be delinquent. I am ALSO not saying it was the design God intended. It will take greater care, more intense effort to do it in a way it was not designed. It can and should be navigated successfully – but let’s not throw out the clear design of the home so that we can make people feel good about their home. Let’s know the design, and seek the design. When it doesn’t happen – let’s add extra support and care for the child.

I am calling on the men of churches to step out and help single moms with things like their automobile upkeep, physical needs around their property – and especially the care of sons who need guidance and modeling by men. We need to do this with wholesomeness, absolute care in our deportment so that no one is ensnared by sin – but we need to do it. People matter to our Master, and they need to matter to us. It isn’t enough to worship vibrantly, and live Christianity privately – we are part of a city set on a hill that cannot and must not be hidden.

The point here was this: Jesus expected the disciples to recognize that they didn’t need to have a full understanding of all the implications of forgiveness – they needed to trust what He told them to do – and forgive one another when repentance was clear. If they would just do that, God would do powerful things through their life. He also wanted to make clear that what He was telling them to do was not some EXCEPTIONAL THING – but the normal requirement of being His follower. He said:

Luke 17:7 “Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? 8 “But 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 are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done [only] that which we ought to have done.'”

In His day, a slave worked all day and then prepared the meal for his or her master before they took in nourishment – and that was expected by both the slave and the master. They both knew the system, and they both recognized the regular expectations. Imagine it is much like what happens when a family with several children in diapers goes on an outing and arrives home after the long drive. Everyone comes in and everyone is famished. The children have slept, the adults have not. Does this mean that the toddlers pitch in to get dinner ready? Not at all! The toddlers plop down on the floor, hungry and start to cry. A tired mom and dad get the children in high chairs and get food in them – the adults can eat later when peace is restored. It is an inadequate illustration, but it may be more understandable, since we don’t have the same situation people did in the time of the Gospel story. Jesus wanted them to know forgiveness, even repeated forgiveness to hard-headed brothers and sisters that keep testing our patience – wasn’t a noble and unusual act – it was the normal expectation of our Master. It may mean we will be taken advantage of, but we have to trust that Jesus will deal with those who make snares in the end.

Third, the tender heart of Jesus toward a hurting stranger made Him tough on those who felt entitled to God’s help (17:11-19).

Apparently the setting had changed, and Jesus was now walking on the way as He came upon ten men who sat along a road leading into the heart of a village begging, for they were lepers. Their leprosy brought them together, though some were apparently Galilean Jews and others were apparently Samaritans (or at least one was!). Luke recorded:

Luke 17:11 While He was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As He entered a village, ten leprous men 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 Then Jesus answered 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.

Jesus encountered ten men with needs, but only one that felt the need to return to Him. What makes a person accept such a great gift from God and NOT say thank you? In a word, the answer is “entitlement”. When we believe we DESERVE something, we don’t become teary-eyed at receiving it. When we get a paycheck, we don’t view that as benevolence – because we feel we EARNED the money with our labors.

Look closely at the details of the story. Jesus was Jerusalem bound, heading south on the dividing road between Jewish and Samaritan territory. On the edge of the village were lepers who called out to Him for mercy. Jesus didn’t stop. He didn’t touch them. He didn’t turn and preach or even promise them healing. Jesus simply just replied: “Go and show yourself to the priests.” That is what they WOULD do if they were healed, but they weren’t healed yet. He told them to move BEFORE any healing took place. They got up, probably a bit puzzled, but thought… “Well, why not? We can always say that crazy teacher from Nazareth told us to do it!” Off they went… The text doesn’t say which man noticed first, but AS THEY WERE GOING the leprosy began to withdraw its devastating effects from their skin, and they were made whole. Nine continued to the priests, but one just couldn’t contain himself. He couldn’t go on and walk further from the One Who brought him healing. He burst into praise and returned to Jesus. Can you imagine why?

The Samaritan didn’t DREAM that God would heal him. He didn’t FEEL worthy! He didn’t FEEL accepted. He didn’t believe he was ENTITLED to get from God what God was more than willing to give him. I believe Luke placed this story after the last one about repeated forgiveness of brothers for a reason… people who are overwhelmed with God’s love offer God’s love. People who are stunned by the mercy of God, find it easier to see others through eyes of mercy. Yet, people who believe they are worth more than others, who feel “entitled” to the good life, have little patience with those who stumble about offensively with need for more love and more forgiveness daily.

Entitlement kills love. It kills grace. It crushes mercy. It severs sensitivity like LEPROSY. Nine guys lost their leprosy, but they never got sensitivity – they just felt like they got what others had – health – and that was their right. One man got back sensitive skin and a heart filled with praise, love and wonder. I submit to you that only one man was truly healed that day – the others simply got a body renewed. Jesus made the point that it was worth healing the group, to see the wonder in one restored worshipper. Wouldn’t you have loved to hear the sound of this man’s praise? Was there ever a song sung with more passion, more brokenness and more wonder? I doubt it.

A fourth short remembrance showed that the tender heart of Jesus toward needy made Him tough on those who saw power as more important than people (17:20-21).

Luke told it this way:

Luke 17:20 Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here [it is]!’ or, ‘There [it is]!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

The short clip from Jesus’ ministry began with a conversation Jesus had with some Pharisees. They wanted to see His “prophecy chart” and compare notes on when the glorious Kingdom of God was going to make them important in the story of history. They wanted to know what was next, what to look for… all the while hurting people were being neglected around them. They wanted to debate theology rather than feed hungry souls. They wanted to air out their theories rather than dirty their hands in the service of God. Jesus wanted them to get their head out of their scrolls and look around. He wanted them to let the Scripture PUSH THEM to a life that mattered, not let it become an artifact that gobbled up their time in endless projections and calculations. Let me be clear: I am a Bible teacher, and I believe knowing the text is the key to understanding God’s heart. I don’t want sloppy Bible study, and I demand that my students take the work seriously – in the study of every part of the Word. At the same time – the Word and its understanding is a tool, a means to an end. The end is relationship with God – not knowledge of a set of books. Yes, they are God’s Word. Yes, they are HOLY. Yes, they offer the key to answers. Yet, in the end, in HIM is life. The Word gets me to Him, but HIS ARMS are the destination for which I must long. The bottom line is this: Prophecy is not more important than people. Study should lead me to compassion, to witness bearing, to loving – or there is something wrong with my study. I want to deliberately encourage study of the Word that leads to a what Tozer called “a mighty longing after God”.

Finally, the string of stories in the chapter end with how the tender heart of Jesus toward those who would long for His return made Him tough on those who wanted to “talk theory” about the coming day of judgment (17:3-10).

Because our study of the Word should lead us back to people, gathering them to the Savior, the cold-hearted study of the Pharisees prompted Jesus to explain an important truth to His men. Luke wrote:

Luke 17:22 And He said to the disciples, “The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.

The Pharisees anticipated the Kingdom, but not the Tribulation that would unfold on the way to the Kingdom. They anticipated the special nature of the Jewish people, but overlooked the special judgment they would face in the days leading up to that moment. Prophets had promised it, but they didn’t take it as seriously as they should have. Jesus told His followers there would be days ahead that were painful, and they would long to have the Kingdom arrive. He went on:

Luke 17:23 “They will say to you, ‘Look there! Look here!’ Do not go away, and do not run after [them].

Hearkening back to the theme of entrapment earlier in the passage, Jesus said that His people will become desperate in the days ahead, and be tempted to be drawn out of hiding to chase after promises of peace and Kingdom. The Master made it clear: Don’t go. Then He added:

Luke 17:24 “For just like the lightning, when it flashes out of one part of the sky, shines to the other part of the sky, so will the Son of Man be in His day.

The cryptic reference was to say something quite simple: When it is really ME, it will be as obvious as the lightning across the sky. Jesus doesn’t plan on a quiet “manger entrance” next time He comes to stand before the Jewish people… Jesus went on:

Luke 17:25 “But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

Jesus made the point that first came rejection, then personal suffering – and only later Kingdom rule…

Luke 17:26 “And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: 27 they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.

This isn’t a reference to a rapture of the church. Look closely at the metaphor. Jesus said that like those TAKEN in the days of Noah (that is KILLED) while they were not ready, so will His coming to His people be. People will be killed, but a few will be preserved as it was in the ark. He made the same point in the story of Lot:

Luke 17:28 “It was the same as happened in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building; 29 but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all.

His warning was straightforward – most people won’t be ready or watching…

Luke 17:30 “It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.

Those who are watching, those who are regarding this warning of Jesus know what when trouble comes, it will be a sign that the return of the King is drawing near, and they must hide and wait. People who obey will make it to the cave. People who don’t will end up like a salt pillar. He said:

Luke 17:31 “On that day, the one who is on the housetop and whose goods are in the house must not go down to take them out; and likewise the one who is in the field must not turn back. 32 “Remember Lot’s wife. 33 “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses [his life] will preserve it. 34 “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. 35 “There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken and the other will be left. 36 [“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other will be left.]” 37 And answering they said to Him, “Where, Lord?” And He said to them, “Where the body [is], there also the vultures will be gathered.”

Jesus ended the story with a simple: “Watch the vultures, that is where the bodies are!” If you pay attention to the signs, you will see where they point. For Jesus, these weren’t theories or stories. Every person crushed in judgment wounded Him. He wasn’t hungry to judge, He was hungry to save. He warned. He cautioned – because He doesn’t WANT people to ignore the troubles that are ahead – He wants them to recognize the days for what they are – signs of the end.

Jesus was both tough and tender. He showed particular kindness to those who were rejected, hurt and weak – but made clear He detested smugness and stubbornness.

Because you know that is true when looking at this whole set of stories, should we not look at our days carefully and measure the tenderness of our hearts more carefully?

Pastor Jimmie Hale wrote: “During a terrible storm at sea that threatened every moment to carry the ship to the bottom, one of the ship’s crew was doing something on the deck when a great sea struck the ship and went fairly over the deck, striking this man with great force, disabling him and carrying him into the mad waters. Although he was a good swimmer, he was so disabled that he could only keep above water. They saw him lifting up his imploring hands through the white foam, signifying his desire for help. But the Captain said, “Don’t lower a boat, for no small boat can live in this sea, in this terrific storm. We cannot save the man. The most we can do is to save the ship.” The vessel was bearing farther and farther from the helpless man. Once more they saw his imploring hands come up among the white caps further off, which moved all hearts that witnessed it. Still the Captain said a small boat must not be lowered, as it could not live a moment among these wild billows. But one man who was an expert swimmer, was so moved by the imploring signals of the drowning man, that he threw off his loose garments, saying: “I will save that man, or die with him.” So plunging into the surging deep, he struggled so bravely with the mad waters, that he reached the poor man just as his strength had gone; he had given up and was filling with water, and sinking down unconscious. He grasped him, and strange to tell, he brought him so near the ship that a small boat was lowered, and both men were taken up and laid down upon the deck. The one that had been swept overboard, entirely unconscious and his deliverer nearly so. Appliances were used and both were brought to consciousness. As soon as the rescued man opened his eyes and found he was not in the ocean, his first words were: “Who saved me?” He was pointed to his deliverer still lying on the deck in his wet clothes. He crept to his deliverer, and putting his arms around his feet, and in the most tender and heart moving tone of voice cried out: “I’m your servant, I’m your servant.” He felt that he could never do enough for him. Let me ask all who read this incident, would you not put your arms about the bleeding feet of your great Deliverer and say from a full heart: “Jesus, I’m your servant, I’m your servant. Ask anything of me, Jesus, and I will do it the best I can.” (From a sermon by Jimmy Haile, My Father’s Business, 9/29/2011).