Lent Readings: The Story of Jesus, Day 42

The next morning as they passed the fruitless fig tree, the disciples noticed that it had withered from the roots up and was completely dead. “Teacher,” Peter exclaimed, “look at that! The fig tree You cursed yesterday is already dead!”

Jesus replied, “When you know and trust God and He prompts you to tell that mountain over there to throw itself into the sea, it will happen. That is, if you believe and don’t doubt Him. When you pray, expect Him to ‘move mountains’ and He will. Moving mountains and withering fig trees is not as important, though, as forgiveness. You must forgive any who have wronged you so that you can enjoy unhindered forgiveness from your Father in heaven.”

While in the temple explaining His Message to all who would listen, Jesus was approached by a group of official interrogators made up of the chief priests, scribes, and elders.  These men demanded that He explain His credentials, saying, “Who, exactly, gave You the authority to do and say all that You do?”

Jesus came back at them with a question and said, “First, you tell Me whether John’s baptism was something God initiated or just a man-made fad. Then I’ll tell you where I get My authority.”

This put them between a rock and a hard place. They knew they couldn’t admit it was God-given because then Jesus would ask them why they hadn’t embraced it. But they also knew that if they openly claimed it was just a fad, the multitudes who revered John as a prophet would have stoned them.

So they gave a non-answer by saying, “We do not know where it was from.”

Jesus, in turn, said, “Then I won’t be telling you where My authority comes from either.”

Jesus then began telling a story to them. “Once upon a time a man had two sons. He said to the one, ‘Son, go work in my vineyard today.’ The boy retorted with ‘No, I don’t feel like it!’ but then later felt bad about it and went to work after all. Meanwhile, the father had gone to the second son with the same instruction and the boy quickly agreed to obey. But as it turns out, he ended up not going to work even though he had said he would. Now,” Jesus asked, addressing those who had questioned his authority, “which of the two actually obeyed the father?”

They answered, “The first son.”

 

Jesus said, “That’s right! And I tell you that tax collectors and prostitutes will be getting into God’s Kingdom ahead of you. John came explaining how to get right with God, but you didn’t want anything to do with it. These sinners believed, yet you still wouldn’t rethink your position.

“Here’s another story for you. A wealthy landowner planted a vineyard and built all that was needed for producing wine. He then hired a crew of workers to manage the enterprise while he went to a far country. At harvest time the man sent some servants to visit the operation and bring back a sample of the fruit. Astonishingly, the hired crew beat the man and sent him off with nothing.

“So the owner sent a second messenger to his vineyard.  This one they also beat; threw stones, hitting him in the head; and sent him away empty-handed.

“One after another, the servants sent to inspect the vineyard were beaten and some were killed. Finally, the landowner had had enough. This time he would send his only son to examine the work. ‘Maybe they will respect him,’ the man reasoned, ‘knowing how much I love him.’

“But when the workers at the vineyard saw the son coming, they conspired, saying, ‘Look, here comes the heir of this place. All we have to do is kill him and it will all be ours!” So they took hold of him, dragged him outside the vineyard, and killed him.”

Jesus turned to the crowd and asked, “Now, when the owner comes back to deal with these workers, what do you suppose he will do?”

“He’ll kill them all,” the people shouted, “and put other people in charge of the place!”

Jesus turned to the religious leaders and prodded them, asking, “Is that what he’ll do? Give the vineyard to others to tend?”

“Certainly not!” they replied, for they knew that Jesus’ story was pointed at them.

He looked at them and said, “It’s just what Scripture said would happen, ‘The stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing and it was marvelous in our eyes.’

“So I say to you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to others who will produce good fruit. Stumble on that cornerstone and you will be broken to pieces. Let that stone fall on you and you will be crushed!”

Now the Pharisees were desperate to find some way to silence Him. They knew He was calling them the hired workers. But they couldn’t risk offending the massive crowd who believed Jesus was a prophet sent from God. So they went off to make plans.

Jesus didn’t back down but kept telling more stories.

“There once was a great king who prepared a marvelous wedding feast for his son. Once everything was ready, he sent servants out to call the guests. At first, no one would come; so he sent out more messengers, extending the invitation. This time some totally ignored the invitation and went about their business; others beat the servants and even killed some of them.

“This made the king furious. He sent his army to destroy them and burn their cities. Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready and no one on my original guest list was worthy of the honor.  Go out and find anyone willing to come, good or bad, rich or poor.’

“So the servants gathered a hall-full of people who were thrilled and astonished at the privilege of being invited. However, someone came in trying to be part of the festivities without receiving the proper robe. When the king saw the man, he asked him, ‘Friend, where is your robe?’ But the man had no answer. The king ordered his servants to throw him out, out into the darkness, out where there is nothing but grief and regrets. Many are invited,” Jesus concluded, “but few actually participate in the king’s feast.”

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Meanwhile, the Pharisees cooked up a plan where they would get some of their interns along with a few political activists to ask Jesus a question that would get Him in trouble with the Roman officials, prompting them to take action against Him.

These interrogators found Him in the temple and asked, “Teacher, we really respect You and Your teaching and appreciate that You’re not beholden to anyone. We were just wondering, should we who are Jews be paying taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Jesus, of course, saw through their hypocrisy and called them on it, saying, “You hypocrites are just testing Me. Show Me one of the coins used for paying taxes.”

So they brought Him a denarius. He looked it over and asked, “And whose image is this on here?”

Together they replied, “Caesar’s!”

Then Jesus answered, saying, “Give to Caesar what is his and give to God what is His.”

Frustrated by Jesus’ amazing ability to answer them so plainly, they left without further questions.

In their place some Sadducees, who don’t believe in an afterlife, came up with another trick question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses commanded that if a married man dies without any children, then his brother has to take the widow to produce offspring to carry on the family line, right? So there was this fellow who died, having six brothers. One after another, the guys died after taking the first brother’s widow, before any had a chance to produce children. Eventually, the last brother died, too. So our question is, in the resurrection, which of the brothers will have her for a wife since all of them had married her?”

Jesus confronted their arrogant ignorance by responding, “Ah, you’re revealing how little you know of the Scriptures or how God works. Yes, marriage is the normal pattern in this life but in the resurrection it won’t be that way. God’s children will relate on a much higher level, more like the angels. And since we’re on the subject of resurrection, haven’t you read the story of Moses at the burning bush when God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He referred to them as still alive and living in His presence. By denying the possibility of resurrection, you make a serious mistake!’

The crowd was thrilled at Jesus’ answer.  Some of the scribes even commended Him, saying, “Good answer, Teacher!” And they were hard-pressed to come up with another question.

Hearing how Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees tried to think of other questions. A lawyer had heard Jesus’ pithy answers, so he asked Him, which of the commandments in the Law was the most important.

Jesus said, “The first commandment is ‘Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only God. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ That is the most important command; and the second-most is like it, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ Every other rule and truth in the Old Testament is built on the foundation of those two commands.”

The attorney said, “I like that! It makes sense that, since God is over all, we should love Him completely and whole-heartedly. I can see where loving Him and loving my neighbor is far more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices I could present.”

When Jesus heard that sincere response, He said, “You are very close to understanding and entering the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus went over to where the Pharisees had gathered and posed a question to them. “This Messiah you are looking for, whose Son is He?”

Without hesitation they answered, “The Son of David, of course.”

“If that’s the case,” Jesus went on, “how is it that David, in the Psalms, calls the Messiah his ‘Lord’? You know the place where the Holy Spirit inspired him to pen these words: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool.”’ How can David refer to his son as ‘Lord’?”

This really stumped them. No one dared attempt an answer. Again, the common people thoroughly enjoyed Jesus’ ability to outsmart the authorities.

Jesus was fed up with the way the religious leaders had misled the people. He lit into them. “These scribes and Pharisees know the Law of Moses; and to the extent that they teach his commands, you should obey. However, I’m not saying you should follow their example and live the way they do. They are experts at saying the right thing and not doing it. Yet they make up tons of rules which they pile on you, never intending to follow them themselves. Beware of them!

“You can see through them. They are all about public image and getting honor from you. They make sure you address them as ‘Rabbi’ to distinguish themselves from the rabble.

“No one deserves the exalted role as ‘Teacher’ except for the Messiah. Everyone else is on equal standing with each other. No mere human should take on the title of ‘Father’ as though he deserved absolute obeisance; that privilege is reserved for your Father in heaven. True greatness is defined by being a devoted servant, looking out for the welfare of others more than for your own. Self-seeking, proud individuals will all be humbled eventually. And those who humbly give themselves away to others will be greatly honored.

“But you scribes and Pharisees, you frauds! I don’t envy what you’ve got coming to you! You are not only missing the Kingdom, but you’re also doing your best to make sure no one else can get in! You hypocrites! Every one of you is ravaging the meager possessions of widows, all the while making a show of your long, flowery prayers. You should know better!  You will be in for a stiffer judgment.

“Woe to you, the whole lot of you — specialists in the Law, scribes, deceivers! You’re going around the world to win converts; but once you do, they are twice as much a son of hell as you are. You’re just a bunch of blind guides! Promises and vows are a joke with you. You let people off who ‘swear by the Temple,’ saying it doesn’t count unless they ‘swear by the gold of the Temple.’ Someone else swears by the altar and you nullify it unless they swear by the gift on the altar. Fools! Which is greater, the altar or the gift that gets consumed on it? Can’t you see that if someone swears by the altar, they’re including everything offered on it as well? And if anyone swears by the Temple, they’re testifying to Him who dwells in it! The one who swears by heaven is making himself accountable to the throne of God and the One who sits on it.

“And another silly show you put on is with your tithes. You’re sure to drop in the tiny portion of mint, annis, or cumin seed while you neglect the really weighty matters like justice, mercy, and faith. There’s nothing wrong with being careful to give God His due, but you’d better make sure you’re being faithful with all of His commands. As it is, you make sure to strain out a gnat from your cups all the while you’re swallowing a camel.

“You are in for a rude awakening, hypocrites! You’ve spent all your time washing the outside of the cup while on the inside you’re full of greed and gluttony. You’re nothing more than whitewashed tombs: you look good on the outside but you’re rotting away on the inside. Outwardly you appear holy but your hearts are caldrons of wicked thoughts and deceitful schemes.

“Scribes, Pharisees, frauds, you make monuments to dress up the tombs of the prophets and boast that if you’d been living in the days of your fathers you wouldn’t have persecuted God’s messengers. Hah! You are sons of your fathers, that’s for sure! And you’re about to finish the job they started.

“Serpents, a brood of vipers — that’s what you are! How on earth do you think you can avoid eternal judgment? Every messenger I’ve sent to you, whether prophets, wise men, or scribes, you’ve either killed, crucified, scourged in the synagogue, or persecuted from city to city. I tell you that your generation will see the culmination of blood-guilt from innocent Abel to Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones all who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. From this day forward you will be barren and desolate until the day you cry out, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

All this Jesus said while sitting in the public courts of the Temple. Across from Him were the large offering chests where worshipers could be seen making their contributions. The rich, of course, had significant donations. About that time a widow passed by, throwing two pennies into the coffer. Jesus pointed her out to His disciples, saying, “You know what? That poor widow has just put in more than all the rich. They gave a portion off the top of their wealth, but she just contributed every last penny she owned.”

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As they made their way out of the Temple that afternoon, His disciples called attention to the massive stones that made up the magnificent temple square. Jesus used their comments to prophesy of things to come. “Yes,” He told them, “look around at all these great structures. There’s a day coming when not one stone will be left in place, but all will be dismantled and scattered.”

The disciples were amazed. “Teacher, tell us more! When is this going to happen? How will we know when all this will occur?”

Passing through the city gates, they climbed up the Mount of Olives across from the Temple, overlooking the great city. Jesus answered them, saying, “You must be very cautious because in that season many will claim to be speaking for Me or even say ‘I am He,’ or ‘The time has come!’ You’ll hear reports of conflicts and wars, but that won’t necessarily mean it’s imminent. In those days nations will war violently against each other; natural disasters like earthquakes, plagues, and famines will multiply; and even the skies will be filled with frightening phenomenon. All this is just the beginning of the end.

“But even before that, you will face tremendous persecution and suffering. You will stand trial before kings and authorities for My sake, but don’t spend time worrying about your defense or what you should say. At the right time I will put the words in your mouth which will silence the prosecution. All this will simply provide more opportunities for you to testify about Me.

“Don’t be surprised if you are opposed by some of your closest friends and relatives. Some of you will be killed. All of you will be hated because you represent Me. But I will be working behind the scenes and will see that even the hairs of your head will be preserved. Only persevere and never give in, never give up!

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then it’s time to run. And I mean run! Don’t go back into the house for valuables; just get to the mountains! Oh, what a trial this will be for those who are pregnant or nursing their young. The devastation this city will experience will be so sudden and violent and thorough that no one in the city will avoid either the sword or being dragged away as captives.

“Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles and left desolate until the era of Gentile domination is complete. In the days leading up to this, there will be false teachers everywhere. People will display unbridled selfishness; any semblance of love will go cold. But those who keep the faith through it all will be saved, and the Message of salvation will be proclaimed worldwide before the end comes.

“The prophet Daniel wrote of a time when some blasphemous idol would be set up in the Holy of Holies. By all means, if you hear that this has happened, flee to the hills! Pray that this doesn’t happen in winter or on the Sabbath! The kinds of suffering experienced during this time will be worse than any in history; and if the Lord doesn’t intervene and cut it short, not a single person could survive. But, for the sake of His own, He will put a sudden end to the devastation.

“At some point the sun will go dark, as will the moon; the oceans will erupt in violent uproar; and stars will fall from the heavens. Because of the terror, men’s hearts will fail.

“Then a sign in the heavens will indicate My return. I will appear in clouds with majestic glory. I will blow the trumpet, and My angels will gather My people from every corner of the earth. When that happens, look up, lift up your heads, your day of ultimate deliverance has come!

“The trees serve as a great illustration of this. After a long winter, when you see little buds and then fresh, green leaves on their branches, you know that summer is right around the corner. In the same way, as all these signs converge, you can be sure the Kingdom of God is close.

“You can count on these things happening not just in some future generation, but you yourselves will experience some of it. Heaven and earth will pass away but My words will not.

“As to the precise timing of all this, no one, not even the angels of heaven, could tell you. Only My Father knows that plan.

“I only urge you not to lose heart nor to get caught up in the pleasures and priorities of this world. Those are nothing but traps to distract you from what is best. Pray that you might escape all this destruction and be found worthy to stand before Me. Remember, you won’t know for sure when it will all come about.

“Think of it like this: A man goes off on a long trip and leaves servants in charge of his house. Each one has specific tasks. The butler should keep alert and watchful at the door because there’s no telling when the master might return. It could be any time of day or night. Woe to the ones he finds asleep! That’s why I urge you to keep your eyes open for Me.

“Remember the story of Noah? Everyone was just doing their own thing, partying, and living as though this life was all there was. No one, even though they had been warned, was ready for the flood when it took them away. That’s how sudden and shocking My return will be. People will be working side by side and suddenly one of them will be gone. Watch! Be ready!

“If a master had forewarning of a thief breaking in, he would be prepared to prevent him from doing so. That’s what I’m talking about. You must be alert and ready for My return!

“You know that a faithful servant will be rewarded when his master returns and finds him doing his job. But the servant who decides the master may never return and spends his time partying and abusing the other workers will face dreadful consequences when the master does return. That unfaithful servant will end up where all hypocrites do — in the torment of eternal regrets and suffering.

“Or picture this: Ten virgins were invited to be part of a bridal procession. Five were wise and they made sure they had extra oil for their lamps. The other five were careless and didn’t take time to prepare. The festivities ended up being delayed by several hours and the ladies fell asleep. Around midnight they were suddenly awakened by the joyful announcement of the bridegroom’s arrival. Quickly, they gathered their things to join the procession. However, the five foolish girls couldn’t get their lamps going.  They asked the others for some of their fuel, but they couldn’t spare any. ‘Sorry,’ they said, ‘you’d better go find a shop to buy some yourselves.’ They hurried off in pursuit of oil. Meanwhile, the celebration began. When the five foolish virgins finally got there, they knocked and begged to be admitted; but the bridegroom looked out and said, ‘Sorry, I don’t recognize you!’

“So I say, be ready! Watch! I am coming but can’t tell you when.

“Do you remember the story I told you before about the merchant who left his servants with money to invest? Some were diligent and prospered while others simply buried the coins to keep them safe. Do you recall how the man rewarded those who had been responsible with what had been entrusted to them and how he welcomed them as partners? But the one who was irresponsible and lazy, who miscalculated the character of the merchant, lost everything.

“When the great Day comes and I am seated on the throne, surrounded by holy angels, all peoples will be brought to me to be judged. Just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, so I will divide all mankind into two groups.

“To those on the right I will say, ‘Come into the Kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of creation. Receive My Father’s blessing because when I was hungry, you fed Me; when I was thirsty, you gave Me a drink; even though I was a stranger, you welcomed Me; when I was naked, you clothed Me; when I was sick, you visited Me; and when I was in prison, you came to encourage Me.’

“Stunned, the righteous will ask when they had seen Him in these desperate conditions.  I will tell them that every time they did it for a needy fellow-man, it was as though they were doing it for Me.

“Then, to the ‘goats’ on My left I will declare, ‘Depart from Me, you wicked, self-centered ones! The eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels will be your destiny because I was hungry, thirsty, and naked, you did nothing. Because I was a stranger, sick, and in prison, you avoided Me and despised Me.’

“This group will likewise be perplexed, wondering when they had had occasion to do something for Me. I will explain to them that every time they had opportunity to serve the needs of others and refused, they were rejecting Me.  These will be sent into eternal punishment while the righteous will enjoy life with God forever.”

At the conclusion of this, Jesus reminded His disciples that the Passover was just two days away and that He was going to be crucified.

The chief priests and Pharisees had issued an edict requiring anyone who knew of Jesus’ whereabouts to report to them so they could arrest Him.

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The chief priests, scribes, and elders of the people were assembled in Caiaphas’ palace, plotting just how they would apprehend Jesus and have Him killed. They had decided to wait until after the feast to avoid a riot by the masses of people; but just then Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, came to them, offering his assistance. “What will you pay me to help deliver Jesus over to you?” he asked. Thrilled with this new inside contact, they gave him thirty pieces of silver. Judas assured them that he would alert them to the next opportunity when they could capture Jesus without crowds of people being involved.

Because it was evening, Jesus and the disciples camped out on Mount Olivet.