The story is told of a farmer who had become restless at his work. He began praying for a sign from God about something else he could do besides farming. One day he saw a strange cloud formation that spelled out the letters, “GPC.” He interpreted “GPC” to mean, “Go Preach Christ.” Taking this as the sign from God he had been praying for, he sold his farm and took to the road as a traveling evangelist.
Things did not go well. After several weeks his wife asked him if he had misunderstood the sign. “Perhaps,” she suggested one morning at breakfast, “GPC really meant, ‘Go Plow Corn.’”
You have to be careful in asking God for a sign. You have to be even more careful in interpreting those signs from God.
One of my favorite church signs reads, “If you are looking for a sign from God, this is it.” If that doesn’t get your attention, maybe a recent interstate billboard would that simply stated, “‘Well, you did ask for a sign’ – God.”
Right after releasing a man from a demonic spirit that caused him to be mute, the people that witnessed the miracle were still not convinced of Jesus’ power and authority. Luke writes, “Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven” (Luke 11:16). You would think the man, who could not speak but could now speak, would be that sign. But nope, people were still not convinced.
The problem with signs is that they are often missed, ignored, or misinterpreted.
The Sign of Jonah
After delivering the mute man from his demon, Luke writes, “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given except the sign of Jonah’” (Luke 11:29). It should be noted that nowhere did Jesus equate growing crowds with successful ministry. In fact, He despised crowds! Why? Because He knew most people in the crowd where only there for the show, or to get something from Him, or to see “miraculous signs.” Here, He refers to the crowd as “wicked” and says they will never get the signs they wanted. He says the only sign they will receive is the “sign of Jonah,” but then He doesn’t go into detail about what that sign actually is. Jonah warned the Ninevites to repent of their sins or face God’s judgment. Maybe the sign of Jonah was John the Baptist, who preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Some got that sign. Most didn’t. Solomon’s wisdom was also a sign, but the only person to understand it was the Queen of Sheba (“Queen of the South,” see 1 Kings 10:1-29). Both the Ninevites and the Queen were pagans who understood the signs from God. It was God’s own people that missed the signs. Once again Luke is pointing out those who should did not, while those who should not, did. A radical reversal.
In Luke 11:29, Jesus says the people were “wicked.” (Remember, He is speaking to the Jews; God’s chosen people; religious people.) How wicked were they? So wicked that the evil Ninevites (before they repented) “will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it” (Luke 11:32). You know you are bad when bad people condemn you for being bad. Jesus illustrates what He is saying with the example of a lamp and our eyes (Luke 11:33-36). In context, what He is saying is that it is our responsibility to see who Jesus is. No amount of signs will convince the nonbeliever. Some will see who Jesus is. Others will not see who Jesus is.
Woes Xs 6 = 8 Signs
After finishing these harsh words, a Pharisee invites Jesus to his home for dinner. Jesus accepted the invitation and “went in and reclined at the table” (Luke 11:37). However, before sitting at the table Jesus failed to wash his hands (and feet, as was the custom upon entering a home). This oversight would be similar to not praying before you eat. The Pharisee was surprised, and insulted (Luke 11:38).
Jesus then says, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean to you” (Luke 11:39-41). Wow! So much for politeness! Jesus was condemning the religious people, including His dinner host, of being hypocritical. He was saying they were all surface and no substance. They were all talk. They were more concerned with outward performance instead of inward transformation. They were more concerned with what others thought of them, instead of what God desired of them. Outwardly they looked clean, but inwardly they were as wicked as wicked could be. It is obvious that Jesus had not read the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Notice the connection Jesus makes with true righteousness and helping the poor.)
What follows are six woes pronounced by Jesus to the Pharisees. The word itself carries the ideas of grief, sorrow, warning, and judgment. These “woes” surround religious laws and rituals the Pharisees had kept without letting the spirit behind the law transform them. Jesus was pointing out their hypocrisy. He was pointing out why they were blind to the signs all around them. Through these woes Jesus was describing what it meant to truly follow Him. Through these six woes Jesus shows us eight signs of authenticity.
The first sign of authenticity, corresponding to the first woe, is generosity. Jesus tells us to give to the poor and we will be clean (Luke 11:41). Right after mentioning the poor, Jesus utters the first “woe.” He says, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone” (Luke 11:42). The second and third signs of authenticity are justice and love. The greatest commandment is to love God and love one another. You can’t love God without loving justice and you can’t love justice without loving other people. Justice and love go together. The prophet, Micah, proclaimed, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Jesus wasn’t condemning the people for tithing on their produce, rather He was telling them that the ritual of tithing without the transformational power of generosity, justice, and love, was useless. It was like a cup, or dish, that was clean on the outside but filthy on the inside (see Luke 11:39). Religious rituals and practices mean nothing if they do not transform the heart of the person.
Jesus continues with the second woe: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces” (Luke 11:43). Both the “important seats” and “greetings” have to do with being recognized and seen as an important person in the community. Jesus condemned this type of arrogance, and in so doing, gives us the fourth sign of authenticity, and that sign is humility. There is incredible power and influence in humility. But if you use humility to gain power and influence, you do not understand the power and influence of humility. Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
The next woe is interesting. Jesus says, “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it” (Luke 4:44). According to religious laws, walking across a grave made a person ceremonially unclean. If a person walked across an unmarked grave, they were unclean, but not aware of their uncleanness. Jesus’ point was that the Pharisees were leading people astray (making them unclean) without even realizing they were doing so. Thus, the fifth sign of authenticity is integrity. Integrity means that what is on the outside is the same as what is on the inside. It means you are honest and reliable. It means you are who you say you are. Integrity means you are the same when no one is looking as you are when everyone is looking. A follower of Jesus, who lacks integrity, can lead others astray without even knowing it.
Jesus’ words were offensive to the dinner party guests. One, “an expert in the law” speaks up and says, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also” (Luke 11:45). Did Jesus apologize? Did He soften His approach? NO! He kept up the pressure, saying, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46). Since the issue that started these prophetic woes was a lack of care and concern for the poor, let me tell you a story that I think illustrates Jesus’ point.
A couple of years ago a wealthy man that attends another church heard about the way our church strives to help the poor. He was impressed and told me to call him if I ever needed any financial help in assisting others. After one particular month where we had helped several people, someone, who at the time was part of FCC, needed some help with their utility bill. If I remember correctly, the need was $200. So, I called this gentleman and explained to him how our church was out of resources, and asked if he was still willing to help. I told him I personally knew the family and thought the need was legitimate. Immediately, and offensively, he asked me, “Does this person have cable TV? Do they have a cell phone? Are they on a budgeting plan? Do they smoke or drink?” I told him I didn’t know the answer to all those questions. All I knew is it was cold, they were part of my church, and their electricity was going to be turned off if I didn’t help. He told me that until I could answer those questions, and if they had cable, cut it off, and if they had a cell phone, turn it in, and until they finished a financial management plan, he would not offer assistance. I tried to explain to him that while I agreed in principle with what he was saying, right now, they were in need. Right now, they were not in a position to take a class. Needless to say, the guy refused to help. This man, I believe, was guilty of loading “people down with burdens they can hardly carry” without lifting “one finger to help them.” When people are hurting they need love and grace and understanding. They don’t need to be treated badly and made to feel worse. Thus, the sixth sign of authenticity is encouragement. The Bible says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Jesus continues, “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all” (Luke 11:47-51).
It has long been a custom for people of wealth to build lavish tombs for themselves and their ancestors. In Jesus day, it became common for religious leaders (most of whom were wealthy) to build tombs in honor of the Old Testament prophets. The problem was, it was the ancestors of the religious leaders who killed the prophets in the first place! Building memorials for people your ancestors killed was rewriting history. Jesus was saying that somehow, by showing honor to someone your family hated, you were approving of what your family did.
On the corner of Butler and Mulberry Street, in downtown Memphis, across from the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, under a blue tarp, lives Jaqueline Smith. She was the last tenant and worker at the Lorraine Motel to be evicted to make room for the Civil Rights Museum. Ms. Smith was removed, kicking and screaming from the motel on March 2, 1988. However, her protest of turning the motel into a monument for the slain Civil Rights leader, began two months earlier, on January 12, 1988. Every day since, she sits under her blue tarp in silent protest. She protests because she loved Dr. King and what he stood for. Her protest is an attempt to keep Dr. King’s dream alive. She believes the museum dishonors Dr. King because it focuses on his death and pays homage to his assassin, James Earl Ray. Ms. Smith believes the museum to be hypocritical. Somehow I think Jaqueline Smith understands what Jesus was saying. By honoring the prophets, whom you killed, you are forgetting the prophets message that you didn’t like and that caused you to kill them in the first place. It was their ancestors’ disobedience to the prophets that drove them to kill the prophets. Thus, the seventh sign of authenticity is obedience. An authentic follower of Jesus obeys the teachings of Jesus, even when they don’t necessarily like those teachings because it calls their lifestyle into question.
Jesus continues, “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52). In Matthew 16:19, Jesus told Peter that he would be given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” The “key” was Peter’s confession that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Today, people enter God’s kingdom with the same key of faith that Jesus is the Messiah. The Old Testament pointed to that same key. The Old Testament taught that God would send His Messiah and whoever believed in Him would be saved. The religious leaders had access to the key to the kingdom, but missed it, and failed to tell others about it. These are strong words. Jesus was saying the Pharisees were lost. He was saying they have not entered God’s kingdom, and even worse, they have kept others from entering God’s kingdom. The eighth sign, then, of authenticity is witnessing. It is our responsibility to share the key of faith in Jesus with others. If we do not do so, we may have not actually entered into the kingdom ourselves.
Not surprisingly, these six prophetic woes of Jesus did not sit well with the religious leaders. Luke records, “When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say” (Luke 11:53-54).
Last Sunday, September 4, 2016, Mother Teresa was declared a saint at a canonization Mass held by Pope Francis in the Vatican. It goes without saying that we, as Protestant Christians, have serious doctrinal differences with the Catholic Church. Among those differences is that we believe we are all made saints the moment we place in our faith in Jesus. Being a saint, is not the result of our good works, but of Christ’s finished work on the cross. However, regardless of these vast differences, I believe Mother Teresa was a wonderful example of what it means to follow Jesus. Last Sunday another person I admire, and someone who knew Mother Teresa, Shane Claiborne, shared a picture of her feet on twitter. The story goes that the home Mother Teresa operated in Calcutta, India for the poorest of the poor, never had enough shoes for everyone. When new donations of shoes came in, she would go through the box first and pick out the worst of the worst shoes for herself. Her feet were deformed after a lifetime of wearing shoes she thought to bad for anyone else to wear, so others would have good shows to wear.
Mother Teresa understood authenticity. She understood the importance of generosity, justice, love, humility, integrity, encouragement, obedience, and witnessing. I believe, if we would commit ourselves to following Jesus, not in a religious way, but in an authentic way, our gospel would attract others to use their key of faith and enter into God’s kingdom. Instead of hearing woes from Jesus, I want to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).