Jesus on What God Want

Jesus on What God Want

Sermon on Deuteronomy 15:1, 7-11 and Luke 16:19-31 for Pentecost +19, September 25, 2016

Deuteronomy 15:1, 7-11

Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.  
    If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.  You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-8-41-59-pm
Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.  Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

Everyone wants to know what will happen after death.  What will the afterlife be like?  screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-40-05-amUnfortunately, this parable of the rich man and Lazarus will not help us at all.  The setting is in the afterlife, that is true.  But none of the details are right.  The truth is that the bible is really spare on details about the afterlife, leaving us with more questions than answers.

Whatever the afterlife is like, it is not like two places within sight of each other, in which people can see what the other folks are doing.  The place where the rich man goes is not called hell, but Hades.  That is a Greek word for the realm of the dead.  In some Greek texts, it is a place of suffering for really bad people.  Obviously Greek mythology is not a good starting point for Christian theology.

We are not told that the rich man did anything bad, but there he is, suffering.  So it makes the reader curious.

Jesus did not tell us this parable to give us insight into the afterlife.  In fact, Jesus did not make up this parable from scratch.  It is based on a story that scholars trace back to ancient Egypt.  It follows a common trope about the reversal of fortunes in the afterlife.

Justice as Reversal of Fortunes

The reversal of fortunes story line is an attempt at an answer to a problem.  The problem is that life is unfair; in fact grossly unfair.  Throughout most of history, most people were poor peasants who suffered, while an aristocratic elite lived sumptuously.   
That is how they lived, and that is how they died. And yet we all have this sense that justice ought to be done.  Slaves know that slavery is not right.  Oppressed people long for freedom.  Hungry people want to be fed, and they want their children to be fed.  People need homes to live in.  We need medical attention.  And when we see that some people have more than they can use of everything, and others suffer deprivation, we call it unfair.

But that’s how life is; life is not fair.  So if there is such a thing as justice, if fairness is ever going to happen, perhaps it happens in the afterlife.  If so, then the afterlife is full of reversals of fortune.  The rich suffer while the poor are finally satisfied.  I think that fairness impulse is what motivates these stories of reversals of fortune in the afterlife.  That does not make them true, but the impulse is understandable.

So, why did Jesus uses this kind of a story?  What was he getting at?  I believe that Jesus was teaching something profoundly important that we need to learn, and it is all about what God wants from us.  So let us dive into the story.

The Characters

First, the characters.  This is the only parable in which one of the characters is named.  screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-48-17-amLazarus, a Greek name. In Hebrew, Lazarus is Eliezer.  We remember him from the Hebrew bible; he was Abraham’s servant.   Eliezer also shows up in tales the Rabbis told.  He would walk in disguise on the earth and report back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s laws about the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor.  His name literally means “God helps.”  In this parable, God’s help comes only in the afterlife for poor Lazarus.

What do we know about Lazarus?  Only that he is desperately poor and sick.  He would sit at the gate of the rich man, longing, Jesus says,  “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  His situation is completely miserable.  The dogs, unclean as they were, would come and lick his wounds.  Finally he died.

What do we know about the rich man?  Initially only that he is extremely rich.  From his purple linen dress, the clothing of the super-rich in those days, to the fact that he ate sumptuously, not on banquet occasions, but every day, he like a king.  Even the word for gate indicates the gate of an estate.  But he dies too.

Their fortunes are reversed in the afterlife. Lazarus is taken to “Abraham’s blossom”.  In those days, tables were low to the ground.  At supper, people reclined on one side, heads towards the table.  If  you were at a place of honor next to Abraham who would have been at the head, you could reline back against his chest.  So Lazarus is honored next to Abraham, finally getting the feast he has longed for.

The rich man is in Hades, being tormented.  The Greeks came up with this idea as a way of getting justice done after a life of being bad.

Guilty for What?

But what had the rich man done that was so bad?  This is where it gets a bit complicated.  You see, in the ancient biblical tradition there is a strong line of teaching that says, if you are righteous, you will be blessed by God.  Prosperity was a blessing the righteous were supposed to enjoy.  Abraham himself was a prime example.  He was righteous and blessed.  He was rich.

But there is a counter-tradition as well.  As the Israelite monarchy developed and wealth was concentrated in the ruling elite, the majority of the people became poor.  There was even debt-slavery.  Imagine how much like being back in Pharaoh’s Egypt that must have felt like.

And poor people tend to do what is available for them: they cry to the Lord for mercy and for justice, just as the Israelites did in Egypt.

So the tradition developed that God was often on the side of the poor against their rich oppressors.  It was not that the rich man was bad just because he was rich, it had to do with how he got rich, and his relationship with the poor.

The Biblical Responsibility Theme: Moses and the Prophetsscreen-shot-2016-09-24-at-12-06-31-pm

Throughout the bible there is a constant theme that we are connected to each other by bonds of responsibility.  Those with means are responsible to care for the needs of the vulnerable, specifically, the widow, the orphan and the resident non-citizen, or alien.

Moses’ law, as we heard this morning, required that every seven years, all debts had to be forgiven and all debt slaves set free.  If the law of Moses was followed, there could never be a permanent poor class in Israel.  There are frequent reminders and requirements in the Law of Moses to care for the widow, the orphan and the alien, or non-citizen.  Moses’ law is all about responsibility for each other, in  other words, the common good.

The prophets likewise, were constantly reminding the people that God puts justice above religious practice in importance.  Micah, for example, asks what God wants from people?  He suggests all the things you bring with your sacrifice to the temple: burnt offerings of calves or rams or oil.  He asks, is that what God really wants from us?  He answers  his own question:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Moses and the prophets agree about the requirement of responsibility for the common good.  It is the bedrock of Jewish ethics, and therefore of Christian ethics.  This is why, at the end of the parable, when the nameless rich man asks Abraham to send someone to warn his rich brothers to start living differently, Abraham refuses.  He says flat out that they already know what to do.  Why?

“‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’”

The Rich Man Betrays Himself

The conversation between Abraham and the rich man shows where the problem lies.  Did you notice that the rich man asked Abraham to tell Lazarus,

“to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue;”

This tells us a number of important facts.  First, the rich man knew Lazarus and knew him by name.  He cannot claim ignorance  of his existence nor of his condition.  He simply did not care.  He did not do anything about the suffering right in front of him; he knew his name, and ignored his need.  This is so much worse than the victim in the parable of the Good Samaritan who is a stranger to those who pass by.  This is willful neglect.

Second, even in the afterlife, the rich man treats Lazarus like a second-class servant.  He can be called upon to fetch water.  The rich man assumes that he is superior and that Lazarus is inferior.  Perhaps he thinks that Lazarus deserves his fate.  Maybe he is being punished by God for sins he committed.  In any case, the rich man assumes he is in charge and can treat Lazarus like a servant.  When you are superior, you do not feel the need to care for the common good of inferiors.


I have never lived in a place in which there were not groups of people who felt superior to others.  I have lived, for a summer in Kenya, Africa, where the Luo and the Kikuyu despise one another.  We all know about the Hutus and Tootsies of Rwanda.

But this is not an exclusively African problem.  How about the caucasian Serbs and Croats.  I can show you mass graves they made for each other.  How about the way Europe tore itself apart not that long ago when it was Germans hating French and English, and receiving it in return?

Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind

In the bible there is a line that says people have “sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind.” (Hos 8:7) Now, we are reaping the multi-generational whirlwind of sowing animosity between blacks and whites in our country.   I have worked in the inner city, so I have seen the conditions there up close and personal.  It is horrible.  Not a single one of us would ever imagine raising our children in those terrible conditions.

If this parable teaches us anything it must teach that we are responsible for the common good, and that it matters to God.  God looks at Lazarus and the rich man, and sees no basis for one to feel superior to the other.  God wants us to look at people as God does. We are superior to no one; not to blacks, not to hispanics, not to Muslims or native Americans, not to the disabled or challenged, nor anyone.

Finding Solutions: beginning with us

So what is the solution?  We did not get here overnight, and now the problems we have are deep.  Solving them will require a massive commitment to the common good.

But it starts here: we recognize that material conditions of human beings is a spiritual matter.  It mattered to Jesus.  It matters to God.

So, if it matters to God, it must matter to us.  And that means that we start by saying: I am not OK with the current reality.  Things must change.  It must begin with me.

Any form of racism or discrimination is an affront to God, the creator of all humans.

And any set of conditions that keeps producing poor people who have no way out is also an affront to God.  I am not OK with the fact that this rich nation cannot solve the problem of poverty.  I am especially not OK with the fact that many do not even think it is a project that matters.  Well, it matters to God.

It is not wrong to have money.  But it is wrong to not care for the real needs of human beings.  The sin of the rich man in this parable was his neglect of his human responsibility.  The theology behind it is that all humans matter to God, our Creator.

So, as people of faith, and as followers of Jesus, we hear a resounding call to take up the spiritual work of the common good.  The question we all are called to reflect on today is this: Where will God lead you to address his work for the common good in our context?

Let us begin each day with the spiritual practice of gratitude.  We reflect on all the things we have that are gifts of God.  From clean drinking water to safe and secure homes, from good health care to excellent food, we are so blessed.  Let us begin by gratitude to God for our blessings.

Then, we turn our grateful attention to those in need and respond as God calls us to respond.


Come Home to Love

Come Home to Love

Sermon on Exodus 19:1, 16-25 and mainly Luke 15:11-32 for Pentecost +18, September 18, 2016

Exodus 19:1, 16-25

Luke 15:11-32

  Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.   The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.  A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’   But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;  for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

  “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’  Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’  Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Just about everyone loves the story of the Prodigal Son.  It is one of Jesus’ most famous parables.  Most of us can see ourselves in it.  We see ourselves in the son who got himself into trouble by problems of his own making.  We have felt regret, maybe even shame.

We can see ourselves in the older brother who feels like life is unfair; he has done the right thing and gets no credit for it. We have all felt self-righteous and judgmental.  screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-11-37-pm

I think we also all love this parable because of  the picture of God as the father who embraces the prodigal son, after all he has done, and welcomes him back home.

This parable, so familiar to us, is not just home-spun truisms.  This is game-changing.  I think we need this today every bit as much as Jesus’ original audience needed its message. What I hope we will see today is how completely revolutionary this parable is.

So I want to start with two thoughts that frame this parable.  The first is, what is in the heads of the people who heard it – specifically, about God.  The second is what is the literary context of this parable in Luke that gives it so much power?

What Were They Thinking?

First, what was in the heads of Jesus’ audience?  What were they thinking?  When someone said the word “God” what images would they have had?

That is why we read the text from Exodus 19.  It is the famous scene at Mt. Sinai.  As the screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-26-21-pmstory goes, the people of Israel had just escaped from being slaves under Pharaoh’s empire in Egypt.  Moses leads them to Mt. Sinai, where he meets God, receives the 10 Commandments and other laws.

This story is, for Jewish people, as important as the story we all hear in school of Columbus “discovering” America.  Everybody knows it.  It is our “founding story.”   Or “origin myth”.  Sinai is where Israel is transformed from a mob of former slaves into a community bound together by God’s covenant.  So everyone knows this story by heart.

So what ideas about God, and how God relates to people, are formed by this origin story?  What kind of God is God?  Moses met God personally, as the story of the burning bush described, but this is where the people as a whole encounter God.

In a word, God terrified them.  There was the thick smoke, the fire on the mountain, the quaking, the loud sound; it says the people trembled.  They were also warned off; no one was to get too close, on pain of death.

So what do they think of God?  On one hand, God is a liberator, who heard their cries, sent them a deliverer and set them free, but on the other hand, God is terrifyingly powerful; even dangerous.

This is the picture of God people still have in their heads when they speak of “acts of God” like massive flooding or hurricanes and tornadoes.  This is the kind of God people fear.

This is the kind of God people are thinking of when bad things happen, and they wonder if they are being punished.

This is the picture of God that Jesus is completely overturning.  This is revolutionary.  Jesus is taking their origin story’s dominant idea, and utterly transforming it.  Instead of a life-threatening volcano, Jesus presents God as a loving father.

Literary Context: the 3rd of 3

Just before we get into the story, one more thought; this one about where this parable screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-37-39-pmcomes in Luke’s version of the Jesus story.  This is the third parable in a series of three.  Whenever you have a series of three, it seems that the first two are there to set up the third.  The climax is the third.  So this is the climax.

The first two we heard about last week: the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The Good Shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep alone to go searching for the lost sheep.

Bob pointed out that this is one of those fantastic elements that parables often have: it would be absurd to leave all your sheep vulnerable to predatory wolves or thieves and go out searching for one.  Any normal shepherd would simply consider it a business loss, write it off, and be done with it.

So this is not just a parable about lostness and being found, it is also a parable of extravagance.  If God is the Good Shepherd and we are the lost sheep, God’s love for us is extravagant to the point of being absurd.

Anyway, it ends with great rejoicing.  Lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing is the sequence.  The point, Jesus says, is that when a single sinner repents, there is great rejoicing in heaven.  What was lost, has been found.

The second of the three parables is about the lady with ten silver coins, who looses one.  She lights a lamp gets out a broom, and searches the whole house until she finds it.  When she does, she rejoices and throws a party.  The sequence is the same: lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing.  The point is the same: joy in heaven over a sinner who repents.  What was lost, has been found.

Of course the odd thing about both of these is that there is no repenting in these two parables.  Sheep do not know how to repent, and coins do not do anything at all.  This brings all the more attention to the third story in which the son formulates and rehearses an elaborate repentance speech:

“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; …”’

The Climactic Third Parable

Now we come to the third parable, the climax.  Now we are ready to hear the same sequence: lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing over repentance.

It starts with another one of those absurd exaggerations you find in parables.  The idea screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-5-11-58-pmthat the younger son would ask his father for his inheritance is bizarre; as bad as it sounds in our culture, think of how much worse it sounded in Jesus’ culture of family honor and shame!  The son shames the father to whom he owes honor by basically wishing him dead already.

In another absurd move, the father grants his request.  This son is already more lost than the sheep or the coin, but it gets worse.  After receiving the death-money, he blows it.  Not just on feasting and personal indulgence, but on “dissolute living.”  You can fill in the blank of whatever “dissolute” means – but it is definitely an R rated story.  His older brother assumes it involves prostitutes.

Not only that, but he is doing it all in a “distant country”.  He has left the purity of his promised land for the impure pagan lands abroad.

Finally, his lostness reaches its most completely absurd depths when he ends up penniless and among pigs – which for Jewish people, is a completely unclean, impure situation.

From there, as lost as a person can get, he comes to his senses and composes a repentance speech.  In it, he admits his sinfulness, announces his unworthiness, and plans a future, not as an honorable son, but as a shamed hired hand.

If the story was that he returned as planned, and was able to make his planned speech, and after hearing it, his father took him back as a hired hand, that would already be absurd.  No father, having been shamed so much – in fact, the whole family was shamed – would ever take back the guilty son, even as a worker.

But that is not how the story goes.  It is not just that the son shows up one day unannounced at the door.  Rather, apparently the father was looking down the road for him – probably every day.  And when he saw him, instead of waiting with dignity and sternness, as would be expected, the opposite happens:screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-07-04-pm

“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

The father did not even notice, nor let him finish his repentance speech.  So, in all three parables about lostness, found-ness and rejoicing, there is no successful repentance.  Apparently the idea that repentance is the necessary condition for rejoicing in heaven was just a literary ploy.  It turns out, it is not the condition.

The Volcano vs. the Father

This then is a revolutionary understanding of God.  Contrast this shame-less, compassionate, rejoicing father with the smoking, quaking, threatening God of Mt. Sinai.  The fear has been completely removed.  Even fear of justified, rational consequences is gone.

Many of us have had the joy of the experience of coming to understand ourselves as loved and forgiven by God after periods of lostness.  We can bear witness to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation we have experienced.  We can tell our own story of being the prodigal son or daughter who returned home to find love instead of condemnation.

The Older Brother

If the story stopped here, it would be one of Jesus’ best parables ever.  But it gets deeper.  There is another brother; the older one who stayed home doing the right thing.  For people who grew up with the threatening God of Mt. Sinai, this one was the wise one.  He obeyed the commandments that came from Sinai.  He honored his father and mother.  He did not covet his neighbor’s possessions, but stayed home working for the family.

In the first parable the shepherd who found his lost sheep calls his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him.  So did the woman who found her lost coin.  In this climax, the way it should go is that the older son comes home and shares the joy of his father who got his son back from the dead, in his perspective.  He was lost, but now he has been found.

The older son, however, is angry.  He deserves better.  He is offended.  He never got a party, for all his years of loyal labor.

Let us pause here.  There is something powerful, but subtle, going on in this story.  It is clear and amazing that the whole paradigm of God has been transformed.  The fear of the God of Sinai has been replaced by the loving embrace of the extravagant father.  But there is another transformation that has happened as well.

What was the condition of the prodigal son with his lifestyle of dissolute living in a foreign land?  We would have expected to define him as sinner, as impure, as contemptible.  But Jesus has defined him merely as lost.  There is a huge difference.

If his older brother could have seen him as lost, instead of contemptible, perhaps he could have had compassion on him too.

These three parables are all about lostness: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  This is our condition.

Being Lost

I do not believe that lostness is a past experience that we can be finished and done with screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-42-22-pmpermanently.  While there may have been exceptionally bad periods of lostness in our lives which we have come through, from which God’s compassion has found us, which we rejoice about, nevertheless, I do not think we get to leave the condition of lostness behind in any final sense.

There are all kinds of ways to be lost.  When we consider our own finitude, our mortality, the fact that our lives on this earth will end, we struggle with a sense of lostness.  What was it all about, if we must leave it all behind?

We feel a sense of lostness when we consider the problem of meaning.  Clearly life is not only about producing things, or consuming things, or accumulating things.  It cannot be meaningful in any large sense if it is simply about our own personal happiness.

We feel a sense of lostness when we look at the world and wonder where it is going.  We look at politics, we look at climate change, we look at terrorism and war, and wonder what kind of world is coming.

The revolution that Jesus brings with these subversive parables helps us discover that in all our lostness, there is a Divine Presence who is there for us.  God is not there to bring condemnation; God is not to be feared.  God is there as the compassionate presence, luring us home, luring us to accept that we are accepted.  God is there, cutting short our pretentious repentance speeches, with a ring and a robe, and a kiss and a party.

In whichever way you are lost, come  home to love.  Accept that you are accepted by Love, the very ground of being itself.  Come home to love.

And then look around at everybody else.  We are all lost. We have all been found.   We are all in this together. So have compassion on other people who are at different places on their journey.  Open the door, join the party, and keep the door open for everyone.  Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate, until everyone comes home to love.  Until every lost one is found.