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On the Road With God

As some of you might know, before I was a pastor, I worked in a number of industries including retail, healthcare, and foodservice. My wife Angela teases me, “you name it, I’ve done it!” Not true, but I did gain a wide variety of skills and experiences. And as different as all of these jobs were, they all had one thing in common: the need for human interaction and hospitality. Indeed, the foodservice and hotel industries are at the center of the global hospitality industry that provides billions of dollars in yearly revenue and employs millions the world over.

But what is hospitality, anyway?  To me, it’s always one of those words that are easier to describe than to define.  It’s a bit like art…we know it when we see it, but there isn’t any agreement on a definition, even by scholars and professionals! Hospitality. Is it an industry? An action? An attitude? According to the dictionary, hospitality is “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.”  So, at its core, hospitality has two distinct dimensions.  First, hospitality encompasses the sense of welcome a person receives at the hand of another.  That’s the “receiving guests, visitors, or strangers” part.  And secondly, hospitality incorporates providing for material needs.  That’s the friendly and generous part.

But we’ve all had one or two bad experiences….  The rude night-desk service at the hotel, the dirty silverware at the local diner?  And what do those things tell us?—at least subconsciously—it tells us that we aren’t welcome.  That these people weren’t prepared for us, or can’t be bothered to take care of our needs, or don’t really want us to be there.

Friends, this lack of hospitality isn’t just something that occurs occasionally in a restaurant or at a hotel.  No, a lack of hospitality and respect for the basic human dignity of guests, visitors, and strangers is something that is increasingly a part of our general demeanor in society at large. It’s a shame, but it plays itself out in myriad ways across the landscape of our community.  It touches the way we communicate on social media, via email, and on the phone.  It even affects the way we interact with our own families.

The question arises: what is at the root of the issue?  What has caused us to be a society bent towards increasing rudeness?  What has caused us to withhold our welcome from guests, visitors, and strangers?  Maybe we are just busy. Maybe we are just tired. But I don’t think that these simplistic expanations quite get to the core of the issue.  Rather, I think they’rejust symptoms.

No, I think lack of hospitality comes from a much deeper issue that permeates to the root of the human heart.  And that problem is: a fear and suspicion of those that are different from us.  In the scholarly literature, this is called “the fear of the Other.”  Scores of authors have written books about this problem from a variety of perspectives, including many well-known Christian theologians.

The problems of injustice that have been highlighted in our society lately, particularly as it pertains to people with dark skin, is a longstanding instance of this fear of the other.  But racism is more than just a fear of the other…it is a fear that led to distrust, and to hate, and ultimately to the segregation of society, and different treatment of people along racial lines, and a system of injustice toward those of darker skin.

Too often the Church has taken a stance on issues such as racism that have left people of color scratching their heads, to say the least.  To our shame, over the course of our country’s history, there have been many times that the church has even been complicit in the systems that made racism possible.  Maybe the efforts were well meant, maybe not.  But I argue, that if we turn to Scripture, we will see absolutely zero justification for this most egregious symptom of a lack of hospitality, this fear of the Other, in any of our actions, any of our thoughts, any of our teachings.

In fact, as I point out to you today, the Bible calls for mutual respect and reciprocity among the giver and receiver of hospitality that levels the playing field and removes all barriers that are set up among people.  If we show the radical hospitality modeled in Scripture, the barriers that society sets up will begin to crumble.  As the old saying goes, the ground is level at the foot of the cross…

Genesis

Our first passage I’ll touch on is Genesis 18:1-15.  In this passage we find that Abraham received three mysterious visitors to his tent near the Oak of Mamre.  Did you understand this passage? In order to do so, it’s very important to understand the place of hospitality in the ancient world.

There was no other virtue more highly prized to an ancient desert nomad like Abraham than to be hospitable.  In the ancient Near East, the base of society was the community.  The worst thing you could do was fail to welcome and provide for the needs of others.  To do so would not only make you look bad in the eyes of your community, but… you harm yourself when you harm your community. You were shooting yourself in the foot, burning bridges, and cutting off your nose to spite your face, if you didn’t show hospitality! In this world, personal identity is all wrapped up with community identity. Abraham’s story, if you know it from the Bible, is a case-study in hospitality from start to finish.  Both his own, and that of the God who revealed himself to Abraham. 

Remember: Abraham is asked to abandon his old way of life and to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldeans. Abraham leaves, taking his immediate family with him.  And God promises to welcome Abraham, to provide for him, to give him a land, heirs, and blessing.  Indeed, Abraham’s cup would runneth over, so to speak, so much so that others would reap the abundance! Abraham was blessed to be a blessing.

And Abraham lives out this blessing principle in many ways.  One day, at the hottest point of the day, Abraham gets a visit from three strangers.  Traveling wanderers in the desert weren’t strange in and of themselves; what was strange is that they didn’t come with an entourage.  They were by themselves.  No caravan in sight.  No beast of burden.  No suitcases, bed rolls, or canteens of water.  But Abraham wasn’t suspicious; he didn’t have fear in his heart.  In fact, he was excited!

I hope you heard some of the flourish and hurry the author tried to place in the action.  Abraham rushed to get water to wash the feet of the guests.  He quickly ordered the fattened calf to be slaughtered.  He urged Sarah to knead cakes in haste.  In short, Abraham dropped what he was doing to provide for the needs of these visitors.  He opened his home, his pantry, and his heart to the guests that had arrived.

And of course this was no ordinary set of guests.  Indeed not!  We find out that this is a physical manifestation of the God of Israel come to visit the servant, Abraham.  The relationship between God and Abraham had deepened.  God wanted to personally and intimately let Abraham and Sarah know that the promises made were going to come true.  This barren and old couple—well past their prime and childbearing years—was going to have a son.  The son of promise that was going to be the base on which Israel as a nation was going to spring.  What opportunities might Abraham have missed if he turned away the stranger at the door?  What if he said, “sorry, no room at the tent today, you’ll have to move along…” Or if he simply turned away, and walked inside, ignoring the knock at the tent flap…

The Gospel Passage

But Abraham DID make room for God in his life.  And the promise of a child DID come to pass. And from this one child of promise came the family line that would provide the world with the child of promise par excellence.  For it is from the nation of Israel that the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, was born.

The second text I want to explore comes from the Gospel recorded by Matthew 9:35-10:23. In this passage we heard again this notion of hospitality—both the giving and the receiving. It’s at the forefront of the story. Jesus had already begun his public ministry, undergone baptism, endured trials in the desert, and has called his first disciples.  He has already given his sold-out Sermon on the Mount and done many miracles and healings as signs that the Kingdom of God had indeed come in the midst of the people—it had drawn near.

And now, Jesus looks his disciples in the eye and says: “It’s your turn now.  I’ve shown you the way.  I’ve taught you the way of the kingdom.  Take ye authority!  Go, and as you go, heal the sick, raise the dead, preach the good news to the lost sheep of Israel…”

You probably already know, the world that Jesus was born into was one of factions and divisions, much like our own.  There was no such thing as a united Jewish religion at the time.  There were the Pharisees who were passionate for the law and the traditions, there were the Sadducees who collaborated with the Romans and ran the Temple hierarchy.  There were the zealots who wanted to overthrow the Romans by military force.  And then there were your average everyday people of the land.  They were tossed this way and that, not knowing who to listen to.

Jesus sees this.  In the passage it said that Jesus has compassion on the people because they were harassed and tossed about like a sheep without a shepherd.  This is a great metaphor, very easy to understand.  But it has deeper history, too.  It sounds a lot like a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 34, in which God harshly reprimands the leaders of the people for being poor excuses for shepherds and for leading the people astray.  Now, Jesus says, people were playing for power and the common folks were caught in the middle, just like before.

Into this world of confusion, Jesus sends his disciples

Yes, the nation of Israel was chosen as the vessel through which salvation will come, but that salvation is for all people!  In our passage, the disciples are sent only to Israel—did you notice that? But later (Matthew 28:16-20) we see that Jesus does in fact extend that commission to the entire world. God’s intent, from the very beginning of the Bible, was for human beings to be one huge, diverse, colorful, amazing family.  The mission to exercise dominion and bear the image of God wasn’t just given to one nation—notice that Adam and Eve weren’t given a personal commission in Genesis 2.  No, that commission is given in Genesis 1, to all human-kind, to all men and all women, every size and shape, every color and combination.

What have we done with that commission?  We’ve broken faith with God through sin.  We’ve divided societies along every possible imaginable line of demarcation.  We distrust people from other countries.  We distrust people who don’t worship like we do.  Or speak like we do. Or vote like we do.  Or think like we do.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the sin of racism.  And I do call it what it is: it’s sin.  I see that now, in light of these scriptures. When I was growing up, I was taught to excuse what some call “quaint racism.”  The racism of prior generations was excused with “well that’s just how she was raised.”

Well, today I know better, and I do better.  I have learned from friends of color, from my friends of other cultures, other nations, other religions, and other ways of viewing the world, that silence in the face of “quaint racism,” or any other type of discriminatory language, is not OK.  I had the power to stop that kind of talk, but I didn’t.  I had the responsibility to speak out for those that had suffered under the guise of hospitality that was indeed not hospitality, but I remained silent. And I harmed myself in the process, by not showing hospitality within my community and allowing inhospitable speech and acts to go unchallenged.

You see, a welcome is no good unless it is a welcome to all.  If we are only welcoming to those that look like us, think like us, vote like us, talk like us, that’s not hospitality.  That’s not a church, that’s a social club.  We need to ask ourselves, particularly in the light of current events, how willing are we to be open to those that differ from us?

Many churches would like to become more diverse, more representative of the communities they serve Many in my local area specifically want to be open to younger people.  But being open to younger people will mean that we have to be willing to be hospitable.  We have to give them the best seat in the house. We have to prepare and serve them our best food. We have to give them our attention.  We have to say “yes” to their requests as far as it is possible. We have to be open to ideas of people who don’t think like us.  The statistics don’t lie on this point.  Young people don’t think, vote, believe, or relate like people of older generations.  In order to welcome them, you have to understand that. Or at least, be prepared for it.

And think beyond just age.  Are we as the church ready to have the conversations necessary to be a truly welcoming presence in our communities?  Are we willing to let fresh voices tell us about their lives?  Are we willing to encourage people of color to share about how they have been excluded in society?  Are we willing to believe the stories of immigrants who fled to our country for safety and the promise of a better life?  Are we willing to side with women who aren’t making an equal wage for equal work?  Can we listen to young people who tell us that they are tired of religion being used as a tool or rule-book to divide and conquer, instead of a fresh well of peace where they can gather?

More importantly, can we listen to the Christ? Can we listen to Jesus, who we claim, who we worship, who we confess?  Can we listen to the Gospel afresh today?  Can we see that it is not just a message of spiritual comfort, but a message of social, physical, and emotional comfort as well?  Can we hear that the gospel is holistic, not just concerned with souls, but with the bodies that go with them?

Can we follow along the road with God today?  …

Who are we called to welcome?  Who are we called to visit to tell of the promises of God?  To whom have we been sent to bear the good news?  How do we heal the sick, raise the dead, free the captives, and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near?

We can start by focusing deep within, to the recesses of our hearts.  In prayer and soul searching, ask ourselves the tough questions.  Am I open to other voices?  Have I created echo chambers in my life, in my family, on my social media, in my reading and viewing habits?  Do I explore, consider, and seek out, other perspectives?  Do I listen to people before I judge them?  Am I open to receiving guests, visitors, and even strangers in my home, in my life…or am I too busy protecting my personal bubble?

It’s always through these individual acts of personal examination that the whole body becomes healthier.  But that’s just the beginning. Then, at the corporate level, we need to ask ourselves:  Is our community open and welcoming?  Do people hear good news, or have we placed barriers in the way?  If Christ were to rate our hospitality for the heavenly hospitality guide, how would he rate us? Would he rave over the radical welcome we gave, or would he be leaving a warning message on Yelp to find another place to visit?

When I was in my teens, the question people were asking was “What would Jesus Do?”  It was on bracelets, magnets, mugs, and books.  Today I want to leave you with this question: “Who would Jesus welcome?”  Sit with that question this week.  “Who would Jesus welcome?”  I encourage you to read through the Gospel accounts, see who Jesus talks to.  “Who would Jesus welcome?”  And then let’s ask ourselves this question: Are we… ready to welcome… who Jesus welcomes?  Because it’s only when our willingness to welcome rises to the level of Christ’s willingness to welcome that we will see our communities grow and thrive. 

As Jesus said, the harvest is great, but the laborers are few.  Don’t look for peaches when it’s strawberry season. Don’t look for pumpkins when it’s corn season! Brothers and Sisters, I pray (and ask you to join in praying with me) that the Lord will send us out as workers into the field.  When we, the body, fight against ourselves, we wither away…. When the body works together however, we grow… When God is for us, who can be against us?  Thank you, God, for your hospitality to us. Thank you for your hospitality to those who are not like us at all. Amen.

Rich Man, Poor Man: A Reflection on Luke’s The Rich Man and Lazarus

Introduction

This week we learn from one of the most unique of all Jesus’ parables found in Luke’s Gospel: The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) This week, Jesus really hammers home what it means to live in the kingdom of God.  He tells us how we are to treat our money, how we are to treat other people, and he even gives us a vision of how to view the Scriptures!

Context

          As always, let’s start by laying the groundwork for the scripture teaching by setting it in its context.  This parable comes as part of a series of teachings about money that make up chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel.  I encourage you as you have time to read the entire chapter; it shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about, what Jesus is talking about, and how the chapter fits together.

This parable follows almost on the heels of the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. In the portion of the Scripture excluded from the lectionary readings for this week and last week, we find even more teachings about money. You might have asked yourselves, “why all of this focus on money all of a sudden?”  Well, from this passage in-between the two parables, the reason for this is abundantly clear.

Just a chapter earlier, the audience for the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost coin was made up not only of tax collectors and sinners but also the Pharisees.  For the parable of the Shrewd Manager, the audience was mostly just the disciples.  But in-between, it’s clear that Jesus never forgot about the Pharisees in their midst.  The Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching was anything but enthusiastic.  They didn’t feel convicted of sin or change their minds about how to handle their money.  No, instead they scoffed at Jesus’ teaching.  And the Gospel gives us a plain reason why: it says, “they were lovers of money.”

Now when Luke says that the Pharisees were lovers of money, it means that they valued earthly riches perhaps over the things of God.  We know that the Gospels can be very harsh on the Pharisees.  Oftentimes we have allowed this to become a stereotype for all subsequent Jewish people and this has led to several harmful teachings about Jews and money that last even to this day.  That’s precisely NOT what Jesus was intending to do!  Rather, Jesus is pointing to the Pharisees as a group example of elite and privileged people who aren’t using their resources for the right things.  In point of fact, many of the poorest of the poor in Jesus’ time were devout, God-honoring Jews, as we’ll see in the parable.  To make a blanket statement about “The Jews” at the time of Jesus and their value of money would be not only a harmful stereotype but also a colossal mistake, a complete untruth.

So, the context of the parable story we are hearing today is one of several told together.  It is addressed to a mixed audience of Jewish disciples (just like the parable of the Shrewd Manager) and also the powerful Pharisees as well.  And it was with the rich and powerful in mind that Jesus crafted this wonderful story.  Now, let’s see what Jesus has to teach us as we listen in to the conversation.

The Parable

The parable story opens with an introduction to a man of wealth and power: There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  This little phrase, “there was a rich man” lets us know that what follows is a parable.  In the Greek, it’s a phrase that introduces stories; in English, we say “There once was a poor man with… There once was a little girl who…, etc.”.  Interestingly, this is the same Greek phrase that introduces the parable of the shrewd manager—and that’s not accidental.  Jesus is inviting the audience to compare and contrast these stories.

And not only was this man rich, but he was also extravagantly rich.  We miss something by not knowing much about the cultural backgrounds of the ancient world.  That’s why resources such as commentaries can be very helpful.  You see, not only was this man just well-dressed, he dressed like absolute royalty.  The color purple was very rare in the ancient world.  The dye used to make purple was produced by a small gland of a particular Mediterranean shellfish called a Murex.  So precious was this color that in the Roman world, laws existed that stated just who could wear purple and what amounts.  Senators, for instance, were allowed a stripe of purple on their clothing.  For a man such as our rich man to have an entire outer garment of purple would mean that he truly was royalty—or at least was bold enough to act like it.  Even his undergarments were of the finest material.  Egyptian linen was the most precious material known for these types of clothing, and it appears that our rich man had routine access to them. And finally, our rich man busied himself with other luxuries as well, such as feasting daily in a sumptuous manner.

Interestingly, all the verbs about the rich man are in the sense of being a continuous state of affairs.  It wasn’t just that he had one nice outfit in a normal wardrobe.  No, he continuously wore the finest of clothes.  And it wasn’t just that he ate a really nice meal every now and again.  Nope again.  It’s clear from the Greek that he constantly ate the best and finest.  And it’s likely that he would not do this alone.  Instead, to gain friends and influence people, the rich would invite both patrons and clients to these banquets to secure their business relationships.  Remember, this was an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of world.  Connections were made and cemented by lavish hospitality.  And how close you sat to the guest of honor or to the host was an indication of your social rank and the ability to gain favors and influence in the community.

So that’s the introduction to our rich man.  Interestingly we don’t ever get a name for this character.  He’s just “a certain rich man.”  Remember how Jesus leaves some ambiguities to get his listeners to think?  I bet more than one person drew a connection between this rich guy and a few of the well-dressed, rich and powerful Pharisees who were people of wealthy businesses, shapers of politics, and community influencers.

Now, in sharp contrast, the next character actually gets a name.  Actually, this is the ONLY time in ANY of Jesus’ parables where a character gets a name.  Hopefully, by the end of the story, we might have a theory as to why.  But for now, let’s meet him: Verses twenty and twenty-one introduces the character this way: At his (the rich man’s) gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.  Even the dogs came and licked his sores.   Wow, what a contrast.  Here Jesus went from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor.  But before we get to know Lazarus better, we learn even more about the rich man’s wealth.

Did you hear it? The rich man is wealthy enough to require a gate on his house.  And when we say “gate,” I don’t want you to imagine the garden gate you might have at your house.  No, that’s entirely too small a thing.  The Greek for what we’re talking about is a massive city-sized gate, like the many gates that surrounded the city of Jerusalem.  And from that, we can infer that the rich man’s house, if we can call it a house, was massive.  It’s probably better to conclude that we’re dealing with a huge estate with a palace here.

And at the gate was placed a beggar named Lazarus.  Placed.  Not, “he sat there, or he panhandled there, etc.,” So we learn that the man couldn’t walk on his own.  He was lame.  Naturally, he couldn’t work.  What was left?   If you remember, the shrewd manager was “too proud to beg.”  For Lazarus, there was only one other option: death.  It was begging or dying, and so he chose to beg.  Was he carried and placed every day, or did he live there?  Probably, from the description of what happened to him, no one wanted to touch him. Not only was Lazarus lame and poor, but he was sick as well.  His body was covered with running ulcers. Not the unclean kind of leprosy, but the bed-sores and open wounds and bug bites of a very hungry, poor, sick person. And the scandalous thing was, that it seems no one bothered to help Lazarus.  Not passersby, not the guests who came to eat, and certainly not the rich man whose gate kept him outside in the streets.

All Lazarus wanted was the scraps that came from the rich man’s table.  But he got nothing.  The only comfort he got was from the dogs.  Many people claim that the dogs were there to torment Lazarus, but scholar Amy-Jill Levine begs to differ (See her “Short Stories by Jesus on this parable).  At this time in history, dogs were no longer considered the unclean animals they had been in previous centuries.  In fact, even many Jews had dogs as pets.  And the licking of wounds by dogs was actually a prescribed medical treatment in the ancient world because it was believed that saliva had healing properties.

I think Jesus included this detail to demonstrate that animals had compassion on Lazarus while, in contrast, the rest of humanity ignored him.  And because of that ignorance, Lazarus wasn’t long for the world.  Even though his wounds were tended by dogs, he wasn’t eating and didn’t have access to medicine or clean water.  It was in short order that he died from the complications of poverty.  Ah, but it isn’t only Lazarus who met his end.  No, the rich man, despite a lavish lifestyle—or perhaps because of it—soon succumbed to death as well.  Death is after all the great equalizer.

Let’s listen to the next part of the text: The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.  The rich man also died and was buried.  Lazarus dies.  And there is no mention of a funeral.  To go unburied in Jewish custom was shameful, but for a beggar like Lazarus, who we might surmise has no family or friends, it wasn’t uncommon.  It’s likely his body was carted off to some mass-grave just to remove the smell and unsightly reminder of death.  But in contrast to the ignominious send-off, we learn that Lazarus’ soul or spirit is carried into the next life by none other than angels.

In sharp contrast we learn that when the rich man died, his death was accompanied by all the proper rites and rituals, no expense spared.  He breathed his last and his body experienced luxury—but what of his soul or spirit?  You might have thought this was a parable about how death makes us all equals, see – but no! Surprise!  Next, we learn the rich man’s fate.  Instead of paradise, or Abraham’s side as the text calls it, the rich man finds himself In Hades, where he was in torment and then he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.  He died in luxury and woke up in the next life in torment.  His luxuries were an earthly paradise only.  He was now in Hades, which is the Greek term for the place of death. In the OT it was called Sheol or “the grave.”

Oh, how the mighty has fallen!  Oh, how the earthly fates of these two characters have been reversed!  The man who had nothing in this life winds up in paradise and the man who had it all ends up in torment.  And it’s at this point that we might be tempted to cheer.  We might say, “Justice is served.”  And if we did that—we’d be putting ourselves in the position of a judge—and that’s always a dangerous place to be.  Jesus is asking: who are we more like?  Is it Lazarus—or is it the rich man?  I can’t answer that, because I don’t know your situation.  But until we end the parable, I want you to hold on loosely to any identification you might feel in the story.  By the end, we’ll meet a third option that might suit the bill better.

So – the rich man finds himself in torment and Lazarus finds himself in paradise.  The reversal of fortunes that Jesus promises in the Beatitudes has come about.  But does the rich man now see the error of his ways?  Let me give you a hint—[shake head].  Instead, the rich man calls to Abraham, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”

So, the answer is no—he didn’t learn his lesson.  In life, the rich man ignored Lazarus.  He didn’t offer him food, or shelter, or a chance to heal his wounds.  Does that mean he didn’t know Lazarus or his plight?  We might be tempted to think that, but the rich man betrays himself even as he is begging for his soul.  He calls Lazarus by name—and not to beg forgiveness—but to give orders to him.  Even in death, when he realizes his fate, he can’t move his stone-cold heart to look on Lazarus as a fellow human being.  Instead, he looks on him as an object to be used, a slave, an animal.  Abraham, send Lazarus to comfort me.  The one who showed no mercy is now begging for mercy.  The irony is literally dripping in this story.

Abraham’s reply is at once compassionate and realistic to the situation.  He replies, Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.

The rich man had addressed Abraham as “Father Abraham.”  He was leaning on his ethnic, cultural, and religious identity, much as the religious elite did at the time.  He believed that his status as a child of Abraham was enough to gain him access to paradise regardless of how he treated other people.  We’ll learn from his mistake, I hope.  But Abraham does acknowledge him as a child by calling him “son.”  He is indeed a son of Abraham, just as we all are children of God, but there is nothing that can be done for this rich man anymore.  He had his chance in life to show mercy, demonstrate love for God through the love of neighbor, but he failed.  And now, he is in torment—and there is no way out.

But the rich man just keeps going.  Well, if there is no way out for me, at least let me save my family.  He answers back to Abraham Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers.  Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.

          Oh, rich man, rich man.  Will you never learn?  Here you are, still treating Lazarus like your errand boy!  Don’t you realize you’re in torment and he’s in blessing?  Don’t you realize that the tables have been turned?  No—you don’t.  Your heart is hardened and will be forever.  That’s why you’re here.

Abraham’s reply is a bit confusing, but let’s try to unpack it together.  He says in response to the rich man’s request about his brothers, They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.  “They have Moses” refers to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or Law.  “They have The Prophets” refers to the books from Joshua to Malachi.  So, this is a shorthand phrase for the entirety of the Old Testament.  When Abraham says they have Moses and the Prophets, he means to let the brothers attend to the teachings of the Old Testament.

And when Jesus uses this as a story argument, he’s going after the Pharisees.  The Pharisees, much like modern-day Fundamentalists, were big fans of what we call “proof-texting.”  They take certain verses out of the Bible and build elaborate theologies out of them.  One stream of thought they had was a passing idea found in Deuteronomy: those who are blessed with material wealth are living in God’s will, and those that suffer conversely are being punished.  So, from the Pharisees’ point of view, a rich man is doing nothing wrong.  Lazarus is suffering justly for some secret sin.  And woe unto us if we interfere with God’s punishment!

Jesus calls foul on any such heartless interpretation.  It’s true that in Deuteronomy we can find texts that back up such a thought.  But IN THE VERY SAME BOOK, there are many more texts that clearly call everyone to take care of the poor, the needy, and the orphan, being generous and moving towards equality for everyone in the community.  In fact, all throughout the OT, there are numerous texts that call out and judge the shameless wealthy people and call them to care for the poor.  The Pharisees and their self-serving interpretations simply didn’t have a leg to stand on, and Jesus is calling them out.  Is there any doubt as to why they wanted Jesus dead?

And alas, the rich man isn’t yet done!  He’s got one final plea left in him.  He says No, father Abraham…but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.  Abraham’s reply ends the story on an incredibly somber note.  He says If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

There we have it in a nutshell.  The rich man’s last-ditch effort was to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn the 5 remaining brothers of their impending fate and torment.  Once again, the rich man is using Lazarus as a tool—a pawn in his rich man’s game to get what he wants. Although it seems like compassion, caring for his brothers,  Abraham—or rather, Jesus the storyteller—is having none of it.

Do you know where the rich man’s wealth went? After he died? … That’s right. To his family. To his brothers, most likely. Does he finally have a twinge of responsibility? Does he fear that he has now passed on the curse of wealth to his brothers, who may also fall into greed and selfishness as he did?  Perhaps. But he still doesn’t see Lazarus – he doesn’t think of the “poor” person. So, at best, he knows what he shouldn’t have done – but he still doesn’t see what God wanted him to have done – he still doesn’t understand who he is, who his neighbor is, who God is, and how earthly wealth is really to be handled.

Abraham says, the brothers already have all they need in God’s revelation in the Old Testament.  If they fail to grasp that God loves the poor person, they don’t understand God at all.  In fact, Abraham is saying to the rich man – no, this isn’t some unfair turn of events. No, you aren’t a victim of unknown universal laws. You had everything – very words from God – and you ignored them.

And that’s really the point of this parable.

Are our hearts yearning for what God’s heart yearns for?

Or have our hearts been hardened to the point that we only long for what we want?

That’s a point to ponder this morning as we end this parable study.  I asked you earlier to suspend judgment as to whether you identified more with the rich man in the parable, or with Lazarus.  Now I’d like to propose a third and more nuanced option.

What if we are the brothers in this parable?  We aren’t dead yet. We are neither the rich man getting what’s due to us or the poor man who suffered in this life.  We are still in a state of limbo.  What if it remains to be seen what becomes of us based on how we react to God’s revelation?

Over the centuries, this parable has been used and abused to tell us a lot about heaven and hell.  It was used to condemn wealth and praise the poor, used to convince slaves and poor people that their poverty was the best place for them.  It’s made heroes and villains.  But what if I told you that that’s not the purpose?

Even the most conservative of scholars warn against gaining any doctrine of heaven or hell from a parable.  A parable, after all, is a story.  And parables, in particular, are stories with intent.  They are designed to cut through our intellectual defenses and teach us spiritual truths.  But they’re fictional accounts, not actual events.  So, let’s not press it into service when asking questions about the afterlife.

Instead, let’s pick up the lesson that Jesus was clearly teaching.  We can’t go wrong there! The Bible—particularly the teachings of the Old Testament, but also the New—have a great deal to teach us about what it means to love God and love our neighbor.  We can never claim ignorance on how we treat the poor, the widow, the orphan, and dare I say even the foreigner among us?

The Bible is clear on the fact that we should do these things:  We should engage and befriend the lowly, for they will be raised up.  We should use our resources as we are blessed, to be a blessing to others.  We should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, find homes for the orphan, and give hospitality to the foreigner.

I promise you I’m not being political this morning.  I’m not some bleeding-heart liberal that thinks that Government is the answer to all things.  No.  Actually, I think GOD is the answer.  More specifically, I think GOD’S PEOPLE are the answer.  People made in the image of God should care for other people made in that same image.  And that’s all people—no exclusions.  That means black, brown, red, yellow, straight, gay, transgender, rich, poor, young, middle age, old, healthy people, sick people, variously abled people, people who speak French, Spanish, Urdu, Chinese, Swahili—in short, all people.

We can’t have limits on who we care for.

We can’t privilege foreigners while ignoring those at home.  We can’t exclude old folks while focusing on the young.  Instead, we start from where we are and share our abundance.  We may not have money to give, and that’s fine.  We have time and talents to give.  We have friendship. We have a voice. We have a smile. We have a heart.

From time to time, we may find ourselves in the place of the poor man Lazarus, needing help.  Don’t be proud and refuse, but instead consider this the answer to someone’s prayers—perhaps your own—that God’s abundant resources would be shared to all who are in need.

As you go from reading this meditation today, know that it is not riches that will cause us to enter bliss or to receive punishment, but rather, how we use them. Actually, how we view it, handle it, talk about it, and store it or give it away.  After all, Abraham himself was a man of great wealth, and he was the host of Paradise in Jesus’ story.  It’s not what we have, but how we use it.

I call you to do, as John Wesley said, all the good you can, to whoever you can, as long as ever you can.  Let us work until Jesus comes and we join him at the banquet table of heaven in HIS bosom.  Our greatest reward is to hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant.”  We can achieve this result as we yield to the power of the Holy Spirit as opportunities are presented to minister to others in Jesus’ name.

 

(Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®
Copyright © 1973 1978 1984 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)rich-man-and-lazarus-large

Troublesome Texts: Introduction

The Problem
Let’s be honest ladies and gentleman.  The Bible sometimes says some things that to the ears of today’s culture can sound odd, harsh, even judgmental.  Sometimes things found in the Bible can even sound immoral.  What are we to do with those passages that speak about women as if they are property?  What are we to do with those passages that seem to advocate slavery?  What about passages related to marriage and sexuality?

Yes, Christians are called to live according to a standard that is different from “the world”—whatever that means—but this last example just emphasizes my point.  The Bible needs interpretation in order to speak its truth to today’s culture.  So how do we do that?  What do we do with those passages that seem offensive to the modern listener?  Have we correctly interpreted them?  Should they be taken “at face value?”

My Proposal

This is the first post in a series of posts that will come in the upcoming months and years that will address some of the more controversial or thought-provoking passages in the Bible.  We’ll deal with them honestly and fairly, usually presenting both sides (or more if there is a greater diversity) of modern interpretations of these “troublesome texts.”

My hope in this series will not be to necessarily convince you of a particular interpretation.  Rather, I hope to encourage dialogue and understanding on several fronts.  First, I want to teach men and women who approach the Sacred Text to do so with humility and honesty.  The text must be interpreted.  There are very few cut-and-dried “the Bible says it so I believe it” kind of interpretations that are without problems.  Secondly, I hope to provide background for those who may not necessarily call themselves religious to some of the debates that are particularly contentious in modern social and political dialogue: race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.  Third, I hope to demonstrate how to wrestle with Scripture.  Finally, I hope to encourage women and men who value their faith to dialogue with others who might have differing views but to do so with grace, humility, and a holy curiosity.

The Wesleyan tradition has, at its core, the notion of “Holy Conversations”—times set apart for fellow believers to dialogue about matters important to faith and life.  I hope some of these posts will inspire people to have such discussions about topics that might make them uncomfortable.  In doing so, issues long unaddressed can be brought to the surface, discussed, and the Church move forward.

I don’t expect to change minds necessarily with these posts, but I do hope to explain why these topics and texts have been contentious and even troubling over the years and why after nearly 2,000 years of existence as a unified text, the Bible remains both relevant and controversial.  So look for these posts under the heading of “Troublesome Texts” in the upcoming months and years.  I already have some texts I want to talk about, but if you have something you’d like discussed, leave them in the comments below.

Go Make of All Disciples…

Matthew 28:16-20 New International Version (NIV)
The Great Commission
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Famous Last Words

It was the second of March in the year 1791.  John Wesley, the founder of what later became known as Methodism was rapidly approaching his final breath.  He was surrounded by his closest friends and companions, those who learned from him and those who would remain to spread the message of the gospel after he was gone.

It is at moments like these, our final moments, that what we say is most important.  It’s our last chance, this side of eternity, to communicate our deepest thoughts and greatest wishes to those we leave behind.  For John Wesley, he did not have to search his memory to find what he wanted to leave with his companions.  No, Wesley lived a life in intimate relationship with God, and that is the truth he wished to communicate to those he left behind to carry on his work.  Wesley’s last words were as simple as they were profound.  “The best of all is, God is with us.”  John Wesley’s life was a model of what it means to be a Christian.  Like Peter,  his life was filled with the ups and downs that fill the pages of everybody’s life.

Like Peter, John Wesley’s life was one that for a great many years was characterized by doubt.  Was he a child of God?  Was he saved?  Did he do enough to satisfy God’s requirements?  When it all came down to it, would he follow God if his life depended on it?  For many years, Wesley’s answer was as uncertain as Peter’s.  Then, in a moment of clarity, much like Peter, Wesley’s faith was solidified and made personal.  Like Peter, he overcame the worst of what held himself back from being all that God created him to be.  Like Peter, Wesley would go on to make disciples of all peoples, and today his message and the Methodist church he founded reach to the ends of the earth.

It is here that two distinct streams of thought converge in our text for today.  The first stream is the last words of an important figure.  The second stream being Jesus’ command to make disciples of all peoples.  In our text for today, these streams join together in what many have called “The Great Commission.”  Last week we celebrated Memorial Day here at church, the day we remember those who have lost their lives in defense of our nation.  This week we talk about another Army of sorts.  An Army with Marching Orders from none other than Jesus himself.

You see, our passage today represents Jesus’ last words to his disciples—at least in Matthew’s Gospel.   These four little verses that comprise today’s passage could be said to be Jesus’ final marching orders for his troops—the church.  Another way to look at this passage before us is as Jesus’ last will and testament—his final wishes to the loved ones he leaves behind to carry on his legacy—that’s us folks—the church—both locally and the larger Church made up of all believers everywhere—the Catholic and Apostolic or Universal church we talk about in our Creeds and Confessions of faith.

So, you might be asking, well Jesus?  What is it you would have us be doing while you’re in heaven waiting to come again.  Exactly what should we be doing while we wait for you?  Many churches have answered this in many different ways.  Some believed they had to convert people to become Christians by any means necessary—even using force if it came to it—that was the attitude that brought about many wars in Europe the whole way up until the sixteenth century.  Some believe that Jesus’ whole command is just to get people to believe the right set of things.  To be able to go down a list of doctrines and demands and check off that I’ve completed this or that task and that I believe this and not that.  That’s been the strategy of so-called Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches.  Still, others believe that it is the church’s sole mission to go out and bring about justice in the world in the realm of social, environmental, financial, and even political arenas.  This is where many Methodist and similar Mainline churches spend a great deal of effort today.  For instance, last week in our church we celebrated “Peace With Justice Sunday.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that–and much that is right!–but it is an emphasis many Mainline churches stress.

But which one of these emphases is correct and in keeping with Jesus’ last words to his disciples?  As we look deeper into our text for today, I think you’ll see that each one of the above options captures something of Jesus’ Commission to his followers, but also, and most importantly, ignores another equally important part of the commission.

We can summarize today’s passage this way:  Jesus is saying his final earthly farewell to his disciples.  He’s spent three years with them teaching them and sharing his life with them.  Now he tells them it’s their turn to do the same.  It’s time for them to become ambassadors of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It’s their turn to teach, to heal, to immerse their lives in the lives of others all the while spreading the Good News of Jesus.  That’s it in a nutshell.  And if that’s all you take away from today, I will have done my job as a preacher of this passage.  But if we look a little closer at this passage, we will learn even more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and what this talk about making disciples is all about.

Our Passage

Our passage for today needs a little more context before we can fully make sense of it.  I’ve said that this is the last words of Jesus found in Matthew.  That’s true.  But it’s also important to note that these words come after the events of Easter.  Easter is the time when we celebrate the glorious truth that Jesus has literally risen from the realm of the dead.  This proves that God has given his seal of approval on everything that Jesus said and did in his life.  A truly innocent man suffered and was vindicated by God by returning from the dead.  Now, all those who choose to follow him need not fear death but can have eternal life through belief in God through Christ.

So, it’s not just the earthly Jesus we are dealing with.  It’s the resurrected Christ who has repeatedly appeared to his disciples who is now speaking.  The place of this meeting is also important.  Verse 16 tells us that this meeting took place on a mountain.  In the gospel stories, nearly all of Jesus’ most important teaching sessions happened on a mountain.  His transfiguration, his Olivet discourse when he told the disciples what must happen in the future, and of course the Sermon on the Mount where we find the core of Jesus’ teachings.  It’s no accident then that this final word from the Master comes again on a mountain.

When the disciples came to the mountain that Jesus had directed them to go to, he revealed himself afresh to them.  The reaction of the disciples reveals a lot about what it means to follow Jesus today.  You see, some of those present worshipped Jesus.  They had already come to a full understanding of what difference it made that Jesus rose from the dead.  But some of those present, likely some of the very disciples who had seen Jesus’ resurrected body several times, didn’t quite know what to make of it.  In the Greek, the word for doubt here could also mean hesitate.  These folks weren’t quite sure what to make of this new understanding of Jesus.

What we as modern Christians can take away from this is that faith and doubt can co-exist in one body without calling into question whether someone is truly a Christian or not.  In contrast to what some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters would argue, being a Christian is not just a matter of being able to, in good conscience, check off a list of beliefs about Jesus.  No, being a true Christian is following Jesus in faith, even when we’re not sure exactly what we believe about point X or Y of doctrine.  One only has to look to the example of Thomas to see that not only does Jesus consider those who doubt to be his followers, but invites them in for a closer look—to taste and see that He is good.  So, if you or a loved one finds themselves in a place of doubt or skepticism about a matter of faith today, let me assure you that it’s ok.  You are in good company.  My challenge to you is to continue following after Jesus, even if you can’t quite see the whole picture now.  It worked for Jesus’ earliest followers and it will work for you if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and trust him to reveal himself to you.

Now as we move on to verse 13, we see Jesus arriving on the scene.  But unlike earlier resurrection appearances where Jesus seems to appear from nowhere, here Jesus comes in a procession—much like a king would do when approaching his subjects.   Even Jesus’ words to his followers have shifted from the familiar words of friendship to something that sounds like a royal decree.

Jesus states that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” to him.  The phrase heaven and earth is a literary device that ancient authors used that would show the extent of something.  By using opposite expressions like land and see or earth and sky, or in this case, heaven and earth, the authors would make clear that they had “everything” in mind.  Jesus’ authority extends to everywhere and everything.  When Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan, he was offered the earthly kingdom.  But by being obedient to God, he not only received authority over these kingdoms but over the very heavens themselves.

On the basis of this divine authority, Jesus now gives his final instructions to his disciples.  He says” Therefore, God, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  This folks, in summary, is what the mission of the church is—it’s just one sentence long—but it constitutes our marching orders.  So it behooves us to take a minute or two to unpack this a bit more.

The first word we have is a “therefore.”  Whenever you see a therefore in the Bible, a good question to ask is “what is it there for?”  (cue groaning) Well, most of the time a “therefore” is going to tie things in a new sentence or paragraph to what came before it, and that is exactly its function here.  Jesus’ command to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach is rooted in the authority over everything in heaven and earth that has been granted him by God the Father grounded in his resurrection from the dead.  Jesus isn’t just a good man who died innocently.  No, Jesus has been made King of the Universe and reigns over every power on heaven and earth.  His commission then to us is to extend that reign here on earth by making followers of him.

Folks, it’s this point that causes the most difficulty for churches today.  We all know what we’re really supposed to do.  We’re supposed to share the good news of Jesus with other people—we just don’t know how or when it’s appropriate.  Or we feel it’s not our job, it’s that of the pastor.  Or we feel that we’re not good enough, or don’t know enough people, or don’t want to lost friends, or any number of other reasons.  And this is where a fresh look at this passage will hopefully ease some of the anxiety about what it means to make disciples and re-energize us to reach the world for Jesus again.

Jesus begins his command by saying “Go!”—well at least that’s how my Bible translates it.  For many years this has been the “go-to” passage used when sending Missionaries overseas.  Go over there, somewhere, and spread the Good news of Jesus.  But the word “go!” simplifies what the Greek text actually means.  In fact, a better way to translate this phrase is “As you go….”

You see, not everyone is called to leave home and hearth to become a missionary overseas.  And not everyone is called to be in pastoral ministry.  But all people who follow Jesus are called to make disciples.  Let me repeat that. All people are called to make disciples.…as you go.  Well, what does that mean then?

Basically, it means that sharing our faith should be something that happens as we live our lives.  It’s not something just for special occasions.  You don’t need to go knock on doors and hand out tracts like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or stand on the street-corner yelling through a megaphone like a fire and brimstone preacher.  No, you influence people for God’s Kingdom through your normal everyday interactions with people…as you go…as you live life with them.  In your friendships, in your meetings with strangers, in the way you treat everyone and everything that crosses your path.  Our mission team’s motto, often attributed to St. Francis is pretty apt here:  Preach the Gospel Always—Use Words if Necessary.”

The goal then is to live our lives in such a way that we make disciples.  What then is a disciple?  Our study of Peter shows us that a disciple isn’t a perfect person.  It’s not someone who does everything right or believes everything right.  But a disciple is someone seeking after God through Jesus.  It’s someone open to being taught about God, about ultimate reality.  It’s someone who is walking the path homeward to being the person God created them to be all along.

So who can be a disciple?  Jesus’ command leaves no room for ambiguity.  Discipleship is for everyone.  All nations and people groups.  There are no exclusions.  Not based on race, ethnicity, gender, or any other qualifying descriptor including their current beliefs.  A person who responds to God’s invitation to taste and see that the Lord is good is already on the road to the discipleship.  Woe betides anyone who comes between God and a person created in His image coming home to Him.

How Can I Help?

After someone starts on this journey, what is the church supposed to do to support them?  Well, again, Jesus is pretty clear about what we’re supposed to do.  We’re supposed to baptize and teach them.  In other words, we’re to help immerse them in the life of God, much like we immerse someone who desires to be physically baptized.

We do this through singing good music about God.  After all, no one leaves the church humming my sermon after I leave, but I bet more than one or two left here with a song in their heart.  We do that through sound teaching as well.  Be that in a Bible study, in a sermon, in Discovery Dunes, or in a work-group.  We are to build each other up in the knowledge of God by studying Scripture, Prayer, and Worship together. In the coming weeks, we’ll be talking about these more as we reveal more of our Intentional Discipleship Pathway here at First.

But you might respond that “that’s easy for you to say, Jason, you’ve got degrees in this stuff.  As for me, I can’t tell you the difference between Ephesians and Efferdent!”  Well, that’s ok.  We all start somewhere.  You don’t need to be a Bible scholar to share what Jesus has done in your life.  That’s what our testimonies should be about anyway.  That’s why we always share God moments.  It’s a chance to get you thinking about how God has been at work in your life.  It’s a chance for you to get practice sharing that so that you can share with others outside our walls!

But you might respond: “I’m too scared Jason. This just isn’t for me, I’m scared how people will react.”  It’s to this very objection that Jesus’ very last words converge with the words of John Wesley to his followers, one before he took the very reigns of the universe, and one before he went to be with the King…the profound truth of God’s presence.

As we go and make disciples, we are never alone.  Jesus promised his followers that his presence would go before them and he would be with them, even to the end of the age—a clever way of saying until the end of time itself.  Remember at Christmas that song we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel?”  Remember the meaning of Emmanuel—it means God with us.

God’s promise is that he is with us in our comings and our goings.  He is with us in our worship, our prayer, our eating, our drinking, our ups, and downs.  He is there to guide us as we go.  He leads us to people we wouldn’t ordinarily meet.  He gives us the power and boldness to share what God has done in our lives.  He gives us the words to say, even when we find ourselves tongue-tied.

Folks, with John Wesley, I can say to you that “the best part is, God is with us.”  Too often churches try to grow or keep afloat in their own power.  These churches always end up in the same place.  Tired, weary, with both volunteer fatigue and compassion fatigue.  Maybe you’ve felt a little of that yourselves here at First.  Now it’s time we literally let go and let God.  No, we don’t just set back and let things happen, that’s not what I’m saying.  But what I am inviting us to do is trust God with the increase.  Like the parable says, some sow, some water, but it is God who gives the increase.  Let us as a church focus on sowing and watering.  Building relationships with others, sharing our lives and our witness with others.  Making a quality experience for those that join us.  Immersing people into the life and story of God revealed in Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  But let the increase up to God.  Focus on the farm work and leave the harvest up to the Lord of the Harvest.