Who Then Can Be Saved? or: Put Down Your Controller and Watch the Cut-scene (Luke 18:9-34)

As we pick up Luke’s story of Jesus, it is important to remember that the narrative tension is rising toward a confrontation between Jesus and all the rulers of Jerusalem, including Satan. And everyone is feeling it.

See, the Jewish people understand from their ancient prophets that when the Messiah arrives at the gates of Jerusalem, that will be Judgement Day: the end of the old world and the beginning of the new.

And the Jewish people understand that Jesus thinks he is that Messiah. So they are beginning to pay very close attention. Because they understand that the ultimate test of the Messiah is what happens to him in Jerusalem. If Jesus arrives and the angels of God descend and all God’s enemies are consumed by fire from heaven — then Jesus is the Messiah! But if he arrives and gets arrested and crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist — then obviously he is not the Messiah.

That is why the people are beginning to ask Jesus questions about Judgement Day. They are wondering if Judgement Day might be just around the corner, and they want to know what Jesus thinks about that.

Like the Pharisees did last week. They asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God begin?” which really meant, “when is Judgement Day?” They expected Jesus to say, “when I arrive in Jerusalem!” Instead he shocked everyone by saying, “Not for a while. First I have to suffer many things; then I have to go away for a long time. But when I come back that is Judgement Day.”

That was a pretty shocking answer — because it looks like Jesus is disagreeing with all the Old Testament prophets.

How can Jesus be God’s Messiah if he disagrees with God’s prophets?

I’d be concerned! Are you concerned?

Well, the people are concerned. And today they are going to ask another Judgement Day question. Last week the Pharisees asked, “When will God’s kingdom start?” Today, the people ask, “Who gets in to God’s kingdom?”

“When the Messiah arrives at the gates of Jerusalem, and fireballs from heaven begin to fall, who is going to be burned up?

“And who is going to be saved?”

That is the question on peoples’ minds today, as we will see. And that is the question Jesus is going to answer.

[9] To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: [10] “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

So we have a religious, Imam type of guy on one hand, and a corrupt businessman kind of guy on the other hand.

[11] The Pharisee stood by himself — in the inner court of the temple, which is for Jews only — and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. [12] I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

He fasts twice a week! That’s 104 fast days every year. God’s law only requires one fast day a year. This guy must have a lot of extra points with God!

And he gives a tenth of everything he gets. That means he gives ten percent even of the veg he buys at the market. God’s law only requires one tenth of a man’s income. So this guy is not just paying God’s ten percent income tax, he is also applying ten percent GST to everything he buys (GST=God Sales Tithe). He must have a lot of extra points with God!

In contrast, [13] “But the tax collector stood at a distance — in the court of the foreigners. He does not think of himself as holy enough to enter the temple’s inner court. Not only that: He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

This guy has no bonus point with God. On that, the Pharisee and the tax collector are agreed.

But God disagrees.

Jesus goes on to say, [14] “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who try to lift themselves up will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be lifted up by God.”

So which of these two men was accepted by God: the religious guy, proud of his religious points? or the corrupt businessman, who knows he doesn’t have a chance?

Mmmm. Okay. Moving on:

Now at the same time, while Jesus was telling this parable, [15] People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them.

This would have been a normal practice. The people of that time lived in fear of evil spirits and illness — especially in their helpless babies. So if a godly teacher visited their kampung, they would bring their babies to him and hope that when he touched them his magical godly power would rub off on the baby and protect the child from evil.

But when the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.

Why? Well, Jesus is an important guy! He’s the Messiah, the king, not just some random bomoh who does magic charms for children! And given the very high infant mortality rate, most of these babies will probably be dead in two or three years, so why should Jesus waste his time investing in them?

Besides, there could be a rich potential disciple waiting in line to talk to Jesus, and all these useless kids are kind of in the way, am I right?

[16] But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me. Don’t stop them! for the kingdom of God belongs to ‘useless’ babies like these. [17] Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Now, how does a little child receive the kingdom of God?

Just by simply receiving. Babies cannot do anything to help themselves, can they? Babies cannot earn religious bonus points, can they?

So Jesus is suggesting that the kingdom of God cannot be earned, only given.

Mmmmm! Okay.

And now that Jesus is finally finished dealing with the kids, it is time for the rich potential donor — I mean: disciple — to talk to Jesus. [18] A certain ruler — that is, one of the local religious leaders — asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In other words, “Good teacher, when the fireballs start falling from heaven, how can I make sure I am not targeted?”

“Huh,” Jesus says, [19] “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone. Right?”

Jesus is calling attention to this ruler’s false humility. He calls Jesus “good teacher” as if Jesus is the guru and he is just the humble student — but Jesus knows that this guy is actually full of himself. He is a leader in the local synagogue. He is well-trained in scripture. So he knows the answer to the question he just asked — is is actually testing Jesus to see if Jesus knows the answer. If Jesus doesn’t know the answer, this ruler will enlighten him and everyone will be impressed. And if Jesus does know the answer then the ruler will say, “Ah, hmmm, yes, that’s what I think also!” and then everyone will be impressed.

So this is a man who already has a lot of religious bonus points, and he is hoping to earn some more by having a religious conversation with Jesus.

But Jesus sees right through him, and basically says, “Don’t play mind-games with me, dude. Let’s get to the point:

[20] “You know the commandments. You know how to escape God’s judgement: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’ ”

That is the “love your neighbor as yourself” section of the Ten Commandments.

[21] “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” the ruler says.

In other words, “You and I, Jesus, we are on the same page. We get it. We know what true godliness looks like. We know how to dodge fireballs.”

And the crowd is supposed to say, “Oooooh! Aaaaaah! This guy ah? So smart one!”

[22] When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “Not so fast, man. There’s one thing you haven’t done yet. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. After that, come, follow me. After you’ve given away everything, then you can come and be my disciple.”

[23] When the ruler heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. [24] Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! [25] Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

And at that, everyone who was listening in said, “What? In that case, who can be saved?”

Which seems like a funny question to us, but we have to remember the mindset of that time: these people believed that rich people have a better chance of joining God’s kingdom. And it makes sense, really: being rich is evidence that God is blessing you. God only blesses righteous people, right?

But Jesus has just said the opposite. In fact, he has just said, “It is impossible for rich people to be saved.” As impossible as pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. Impossible.

So the people hear this and they think, “What? If it is impossible for rich people to be saved, and rich people are the holiest people we’ve got — then what chance does anybody else have?”

And Jesus replies, “Zero chance. I told you already: impossible mah!” But…verse 27: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

Jesus just asked this rich religious guy to give away all his wealth to the poor. Why? Because God’s Law is not actually about religious details; it is about compassion. The details are important! — but if the details are followed simply to earn religious bonus points, without compassion for others, then that is dead religion.

This rich religious guy believed he could earn points by being religious, by being “good”. Jesus just commanded him to give up all his religious bonus points, to become poor and humble himself, and to trust in God alone for mercy.

Now before we move one I want to make one thing very clear: Jesus commanded this man to give away everything. Jesus is not necessarily commanding all Christians to give away everything.

In the past, some well-meaning people have read this passage and thought, “Oh, in that case every Christian should give away everything all the time.” That is not what Jesus is teaching here. This particular man thought that being rich and religious gave him bonus points with God. Being rich was this man’s idol; so Jesus asked him to give it up.

We all have idols of various kinds. As we all grow together here, Jesus will gradually reveal our idols to us, and he will ask us to give them up, because they are poisonous to us.

But to be perfectly clear, this story is not meant to teach us all to give away everything before becoming Christian.

All right, now it is time to summarize these three short episodes, and apply it to our lives today:

As Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem, people are beginning to ask, “What if he really is the Messiah? What if Judgement Day really begins two weeks from now when he arrives in Jerusalem? How can I know for certain which side I’m on?”

They are asking, “Who will be saved?”

And Jesus has just answered that question two times, with the same answer each time:

Which of these two is going to be saved: the Pharisee who thinks he can save himself with his own religiousness? or the tax collector who has nothing except a prayer for mercy?

Which of these two is going to be saved: the rich ruler who thinks he can save himself with his own religiousness? or those powerless babies who have nothing but the touch of Jesus’ hands?

So: who is going to be saved on the Day of Judgement?

The helpless. The humble. Those who have no other hope but God. Jesus said it clearly said in verse 14: “All those who try to lift themselves up will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be lifted up by God.”

And this is where we say, “Oh, being humble! Being humble is the key to salvation! I can do that! Come on everybody, let’s be humble together!”

But that would be the wrong response, wouldn’t it?

That would be putting our trust in our ability to be humble. We would be no different from the Pharisee or the rich ruler, who put their trust their ability to be religious!


Well, the good news is we are not the only ones to make that mistake. Peter, also, thinks he has gotten the message loud and clear: “Only the humble will be saved.” So he speaks up in verse 28 and says, “Jesus, we are super humble! We have left all we had to follow you!”

Peter is right. And Peter is wrong.

Peter is right to believe that those who humble themselves will be saved. But Peter is wrong to think that he has actually humbled himself enough to be saved.

See the problem with true humility is: you can’t boast about it! Am I right? This is how works: I humble myself, I give away all my possessions to the poor, I use all my free time to fast and pray, to read my bible, to serve others…and then I look around, “Wow, I am so very humble compared to all these other people!” and — phhhht! — instantly all my humility points are gone.

That is the mistake Peter just made. He heard Jesus’ instructions to the rich ruler, and he thought, “Check! We’ve already given away everything! We are ahead of this guy!

And of course Jesus is very kind to Peter. He acknowledges where Peter is right: [29] “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God [30] will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Jesus is saying: “Yes, it is true, you have risked everything to join me. And I promise you will be paid back for everything you have lost. You will be rewarded!”

And if Jesus had stopped there, the disciples would have continued to think that “being humble” is the key to salvation. And we, today, would leave worship thinking, “Yep, I just have to be more humble, and then God will save me.” And before too long, we would be standing up in church to pray, “God, thank you that we are not like other people — Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus — or even like those Atheists. We have given up everything to follow you! You should reward us. Amen.”

But Jesus did not stop there. [31] Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.”

And what do the disciples think the prophets have written about the Son of Man? They think, “When the Messiah arrives in Jerusalem, Judgement Day will commence, God’s enemies will be consumed by fire, Jesus will go on to rule the new creation, and we will all rule alongside him!


Get ready for a shock, friends:

[32] “He — the Son of Man — will be delivered over to the Gentiles — the Romans. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; [33] they will flog him and kill him.

In other words: he will be crucified as an insurrectionist, just like all the other fake Messiahs.

And yet: “On the third day he will rise again.”

But the disciples don’t even hear the rising part, because they are completely confused by the dying part: [34] The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

To the disciples’ way of thinking, Jesus has just said, “Hey guys, bad news: I’m not actually the real Messiah.” They cannot conceive of a Messiah who arrives in Jerusalem and then is defeated. It is against everything they think they understand from the Old Testament.

What makes their reaction even more painful is the fact that this is the third time Jesus has said this. He told them this twice in Chapter 9, right at the beginning of their march toward Jerusalem, and, “They did not understand”. Here, at the end of their march, only days away from their destination, Jesus says it again; and still, the disciples do not understand.

Even after all the months and years of Jesus’ teaching they still don’t get it.

And the question we are supposed to ask here is, “Why not?” Are the disciples just stupider than usual, or is there something else going on?

No, the disciples are not stupider than usual; they are just like us. Just like us, the disciples like the idea of victory and power. They do not like the idea of defeat and humiliation. Just like us, the disciples tend to assume that success is a sign that God is happy with you, failure a sign that God is angry with you.

But the problem with this mindset is this: we quickly come to worship success itself as proof of our salvation. And we quickly begin to give ourselves bonus points. Oh, sure! we thank God for doing his part, but really our focus is on us, just like that Pharisee at the temple. Look closely at his prayer in verse 11. See how he begins? “God, I thank you!” Well, that’s wonderful, Mr. Pharisee! — it really is. But notice how all the rest of that prayer is focused entirely on what that Pharisee has done for himself?

This is a problem that all humanity shares. It is our foundational problem. In fact, this is the exact idea Satan used to make slaves out of Adam and Eve at the beginning. Remember his words to the woman in Genesis Chapter 3? “If you eat this fruit, you will become like God, knowing the difference between good and evil.” In other words: “If you eat this fruit, you will become smart enough to choose between good and evil. And when you choose to do good instead of evil, you will get bonus points for that! You will be truly responsible for your actions, just like God!”

But the serpent did not help Adam and Eve think fully through all the implications. Yes, if — after eating the fruit — they chose to do good, they would be truly responsible for that! They would get bonus points.

But…if they chose to do evil, they would also be held responsible for that. They would get negative bonus points.

That’s fair, right? A perfectly balanced system: if you do good, you get points; if you do evil, you lose points.

But this was the genius of the serpent’s temptation: the instant Adam ate the fruit, he chose evil. In the video game of existence, all his life points went to zero. Game Over. And all you gamers tell me, how many bonus points can you win after the game is over? It doesn’t matter anymore how good you are with the controller, does it? You can sit there all night pushing buttons and you won’t get anywhere. The only thing you can do is reset, go back to the last save point.

And in the game of life, there are no save points. You get to die once. Ever since Adam ate the fruit, we have been like gamers playing a broken game. We’re all there with our controllers saying, “Ha ha! Do you see how much I’m praying? Do you see how much I’m fasting! I just gave away everything to the poor! I am the Boss when it comes to being humble!” We keep track of the points in our minds, thinking they actually add up to something. But they don’t, because the console is glitching. The disk is scratched. The software has a bug. We are stuck in an eternal cut-scene that plays over and over and over again where the serpent holds out the fruit, we take it, fade to black, the serpent holds out the fruit, we take it, fade to black, the serpent holds out the fruit…

The disciples are just like us. They ask, “Who then can be saved?” but what they really mean is, “How can we save ourselves?” “Jesus, teach us the cheat code that will help us defeat the dragon at the end. Is it AA BB Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right?” Jesus says, “No. The cheat code is this: only the humble will be saved.” And the disciples say, “Oh, of course! Thanks man, we can do that!” They pick up their controllers, and they are ready to play!

But the problem remains: how do you earn “humble points” when the game is over?

When Jesus tells his disciples, “I am going to be captured, humiliated, and killed,” he telling them, “guys, I’m going to reboot the console now.”

Jesus is trying to tell them that the problem is bigger than they think. Having the right cheat codes will not get them anywhere. But they cannot hear it, because they still think they can play Satan’s game and win.

In fact, in this whole passage, there is only one person who actually gets it: the tax collector. Look at his prayer: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ This is the only truly humble man we have met today. And do you want to know his secret, how he got to be so humble?

He did not humble himself; that is impossible, as we have seen.

No, the secret to the tax collector’s humility is this: at some point God humbled him.

This is how it happened: at some point God opened the tax collector’s eyes. He sat up and looked around. And far away over there he saw that Pharisee playing furiously and yelling, “Yes! Fasting points! Praying points! Tithing points! I am owning you, tax man!” But the tax collector has realized it is all an illusion, just like Neo waking up and seeing himself for the first time: skinny, pale, helpless, a slave hooked up to a machine. Everyone in the world is playing to the same glitching cut-scene, pretending that by pushing buttons they can somehow make it turn out differently.

And what would you do if you woke up one day and realized that the whole thing — all your “success”, all your gaming skills, all your religious points — is fake and fruitless? Would you keep pretending to play? Or would you put down your controller and admit, “This is stupid. This is pointless”?

This tax collector has just put down his controller. In his prayer he is saying, “God, I’m done. I’ve got nothing left. If you do not reboot my console, I’m going to be stuck in the hell of this cut-scene for the rest of eternity.”

The tax collector is literally saying, “God, the only way for me to be saved is if you pay off my negative points.” And when I say literally, I mean literally. This sentence, “God, have mercy on me,” is completely unique in all of Luke’s writings. Before this, when people came to ask Jesus for mercy and healing, Luke used the Greek word “eleison”, which means “forgive my sins”. But here, when the tax collector asks for mercy, Luke uses — for the first and last time — the Greek word “hilaskomai”, which means “atone for my sins”. It literally means, “please pay for my sins.”

Friends, humility is not something we can “do”. It is impossible for us to humble ourselves without becoming arrogant about how well we have humbled ourselves! Instead, humility is something that happens to us. It happens to us when God, in his mercy, opens our eyes to see that we cannot win the game. Humility means putting down the controller and asking God to erase our points and buy us a whole new console.

But how does that happen? How does God humble us?

God humbles us through the cross of Christ. We are born believing that good people are blessed, bad people are cursed. We are born believing that when something good happens to us, we have earned it.

But the death of Jesus completely contradicts that system: he was a good man, the perfect man; he should have experienced nothing but success! Instead, he fell under a terrible curse. He was humiliated in public, and tortured to death as the worst of criminals.

Why did he do it? He did not have to: obviously he knew it was coming, and he could have avoided it. Instead…

So, why? Why did he choose to go through with it? Because there was no other way to wake us up to the seriousness of our situation: that we are playing to a cut-scene that will keep repeating forever unless the whole system is completely restored.

This is how our Father humbles us: he places his Son, his beloved Son, on a Roman Cross, and holds him up to the humiliation of the whole world. It is the Cross alone that can open our eyes to our helplessness, our hopelessness. It is the humiliation of Christ alone that can humble us, and cure us of our obsession with success.

Now, no doubt we have many questions about how discrediting the Messiah rebooted the system. Luke is going to begin to answer those questions over the next few chapters. But, practically speaking, today, we are left with one question: what are we supposed to do? If only the humble can be saved, and yet we cannot actually humble ourselves, then: how can we be saved? How can we be humbled?

This is what we are supposed to do: we are supposed to fix our eyes on the Cross. We are supposed to see that there is something that only Jesus could do. And so we are supposed to put down our controllers, and give up the game, and pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

At first, like the disciples, we will struggle to understand why Jesus had to pay that price to reset the system. But here is the beauty of Jesus’ system: even without understanding we can begin to receive the blessings of life with him. Even if, like the babies that were brought to Jesus, all we know is that we want to be fed, and loved, and cared for, then he is willing to do it. Jesus lays his hands on every child that is brought to him, and adopts them into his Father’s house.

So: if you are not a Christian, if all this is new to you, then consider the humiliation of Christ. Think about what it must mean that God’s anointed king was willing to submit to death on a cross. Allow him to reset your life.

But if you are already a baptized believer, then please, come, approach without fear, and eat at your Father’s table.

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