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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Eschatology, Excerpt, Expectation: Luke 21:5-38

Serious Christians remember a sermon if you simplify it. Hence, the title of my book, Simple Sermons for Serious Christians. Most often, I simplify sermons by hanging three points on one letter. Today, three Es – eschatology, excerpt and expectation.
Three points are easier to remember if they all begin with the same letter. Case in point: We summarize workspace safety with education, evaluation and enforcement. Customer service consists of ease, effectiveness and emotion. Leadership involves equipping, empowering and exposure. The National Audit Office assesses the value for money of government spending with economy, efficiency and effectiveness. While I do not expect you to remember all those Es, they illustrate that points are easier to remember if all the words begin with the same letter. That said, we move to eschatology, excerpt and expectation.
First, eschatology. Eschatology is the study of the last things, that is, death, judgment, heaven and hell. It is from the Greek word eskhatos, meaning last, furthest or most remote in time, space or degree.
We speak of eschatology today because as the church year closes, we hear Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament, speak of the Day of the Lord. Paul offers encouragement as his readers await the return of Christ. Luke recounts Jesus’ last days. Hence, eschatology is suited for the end of our liturgical year. Yet, we cannot merely mention eschatology. We need to understand it.
Although we speak of the aforementioned last things, eschatology refers to a theology of history, with a specific reference to for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant promise.[1] In other words, eschatology is about hope based upon God’s promise, God’s word, and what our Trinitarian God has done for us as Father, Son and Spirit.
Eschatology involves the future based upon past promises, but it is also about the present. Eschatology is both individual and universal. It is about my personal choices and our universal fulfillment. In a sense, eschatology is bi-polar and all-encompassing.
Envision Abraham, an individual who trusted God’s promises, and envision his posterity, a great nation.[2] We know God fulfilled that promise under David’s rule, and although the monarchy collapsed, this gave rise to hope for a restored monarchy by a Savior figure from the royal line of David. Based upon God’s promise, the prophets envisioned life in a world under God’s reign marked by peace, justice and reconciliation, as well as the possibility of resurrection of the dead.
This, of course, set the stage for Jesus and the early Christian community. He took up the hopes of his people, and through their experience of his resurrection, his disciples understood his preaching in a new light, rooted in God’s promise and the prophets. In short, the destiny of Jesus with God anticipates the destiny of humanity and creation.[3]
Paul’s letters describe his eschatology in detail, and yet, his is not a fixed thought. Paul expected an imminent end. In Thessalonians, we read, “For you are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thes. 5:2). His second letter reveals an indeterminate expectation. Ephesians and Colossians present a cosmic vision of all powers, including demonic ones, subject to Christ.
Eschatology – death, judgment, heaven and hell – may unnerve us; but through the prism of the cross, God’s promises calm our nerves. That leads me from eschatology to excerpt.
Most people today read excerpts of the Bible. The way to read the Bible is one book per sitting. Read Exodus or Jeremiah in one afternoon and you appreciate and understand it better than if you read a chapter a day. Pore over Luke, Acts or Revelation, and its message takes on new meaning. While I encourage you to read each book in one sitting, most read excerpts of the Bible.
The word excerpt means to select a passage from a book. We derive excerpt from the Latin word excerpere, which means to pluck out, pick out or extract. The Romans merged it from two smaller words, ex, meaning out and carpere, meaning pluck or gather. Our liturgical tradition is to read excerpts from the Gospels and New Testament along with Old Testament passages related to the Gospel. Reading the Bible this way allows us to observe certain seasons and feasts, such as Advent, Lent, Christmas and Easter. On Ash Wednesday, we hear readings about prayer, fasting and almsgiving. On Pentecost, we proclaim the work of the Holy Spirit. On Thanksgiving, Luke’s story of Jesus healing the ten lepers. Excerpts allow pastors to preach an expository sermon and explain why we observe Lent with solemnity or celebrate Easter with joy.
In our eschatological excerpt today, Jesus is teaching in the temple as he warns his disciples that the kingdom of God is near by teaching about the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem and the world. Jesus’ teaching begins and ends with the temple. This is no accident, as Jesus’ entire teaching, the infancy narrative and the entire gospel begin and end in the temple.[4]
When we hear temple and Jerusalem, we need to keep in mind not only a physical building of stones and a geographical locale of redemption, but more importantly, the location of the presence of the Lord. That requires us to think eschatologically for these beautiful stones will be pulled down.
Jesus spoke of stones in other sayings about Jerusalem. Stones would shout acclamations if people were kept silent during his entry into the city. Jerusalem’s enemies would not leave one stone upon another because it did not know its time of visitation. The rejected stone became the cornerstone.[5] The stones that matter in the temple are not the ones that form the building, but the Stone whose presence has resided among the physical stones and who now prophesies the end of those stones.[6] And if the temple, the place where God dwelt, is destroyed, where would people look for God? In Jesus, who came to dwell not in a stones building, but in the Church through Word and Sacrament.
Continuing on our excerpt, Jesus teaches his disciples not how to predict the future, but how to see that “end times” begin with his death and resurrection. Preparing his disciples for the end so that they are not misled, Jesus points not to a stone temple and signs, but how to recognize false prophets coming in his name with a different catechesis, a different teaching. This false teaching comes from panic that people feel when calamity strikes. Wars will come. Disaster will strike. When they occur, some will present false teaching. Jesus’ advises his disciples: Do not panic.
Along with the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem and the world, Jesus spoke of persecution, and for the first time, he explicitly suggested that his trials are bound to their trials.
When Jesus said, “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake,” he referred to his disciples and the entire Church. Jesus meant this statement for men and women in his company and those who would follow later. This persecution continued in Acts. When Saul fell to the ground, “he heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”[7]
One author described the persecution this way. “Christians will experience persecution for no other reason than their connection with Jesus. The name of Jesus defines their identity, for Christians bear in their bodies Jesus, the new temple. For that reason, Christians are living stones and their bodies are temples. The opponents will hate them because the presence of God has shifted from the temple of Jerusalem to where Christ promised to be present: in those baptized in his name, in the Gospel, in his Supper. How ironic that the temple of Jerusalem is destroyed by God because the people refused to believe that a shift in divine presence had taken place and that Christians will be killed because they proclaim that this presence now dwells among them.”[8] Folks, that persecution persists today.
That persecution continues today, and Christians willingly bear it because they believe his promise. They believe Jesus’ words at the end of this excerpt. “When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”[9]
Destruction and persecution fill our excerpt, but for all Christians who believe, hope overshadows them. That is why we gather here today. We believe that Jesus is among us in Sacrament, Word and prayer. We gather here knowing that persecution awaits us as it did Jesus, but we trust in his word. Yes, we trust in his word, but … now what? Now, I turn to my third point, expectation.
What do we mean by expectation? Expectation means belief that something will happen or is likely to happen. When our daughter and daughter-in-law became pregnant, we expected babies. When our team goes to training camp, we expect a championship. When high school graduates leave for college, we expect they will earn a bachelor’s degree … in four years. When the doctor diagnoses a loved one with a terminal disease, we expect we should get our affairs in order. When the pastor appears at the hospital or funeral home, we expect comfort. When we pray, we expect God to answer.
So, what should we expect as we await the end of days? What should we expect on the Day of the Lord? What are we expected to do as we endure destruction and persecution?
We are expected to hope and pray as individuals and community, but what else? To help answer that question, we turn to Paul. He not only prayed for believers, but also exhorted them to imitate him. You “know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you.”[10]
When it comes to imitation, fathers and mothers set the standard for their children. Each section in Luther’s Small Catechism begins with “The head of the family …” Section Two on Daily Prayers states, “How the head of the family should teach his household to pray morning and evening. … In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[11] The Catechism then instructs us to kneel or stand and repeat the Creed and Lord’s Prayer before saying his little prayer.
My point is this. We imitate Paul by following Luther’s instruction on prayer because it recalls our baptism as sinners redeemed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you pray two or three times daily as a couple or a family, you increase your odds of holding on to hope while being persecuted. Remember, Satan is defeated, but not dead. He can tempt others to hate and harm you as he led men to hate and harm Jesus and his followers. So, pray daily.
Pray daily for the end is near. I do not know when it will come for you or me, but soon. Moreover, the end of this sermon is near too. However, one last thing.
I named this sermon Three Es of Christianity, and when I began researching it, I came across an article written by an Orthodox priest entitled “Ease of Life and Christianity Do Not Go Together.” There are three Es of Christianity, but there is no ease of Christianity.
Friends, following Jesus to the Cross and Tomb on Friday or any day of the week is difficult. Standing under the shadow of the Cross can be dark and daunting. Witnessing destruction and enduring persecution may seem pointless. But having experienced the Risen Christ and the Joy of the Holy Spirit in my heart makes all the difference in my life. I pray it does in yours.
Friends, as we await for the Son of Man to come in a cloud with great power and glory, remain faithful in prayer, and as you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Zachary Hayes, “Eschatology,” The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press (1993), 354.
[2] Gen 12:1ff.
[3] Hayes, 355.
[4] The temple teaching is framed by 19:47; 21:37-48. The infancy narrative by 1:5-25; 24:53, and the gospel by 1:5-25; 24:53.
[5] 19:40; 19:44; 20:17.
[6] Arthur A. Just, Jr., Luke 9:51-24:53. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1997), 789.
[7] Acts 9:4-5.
[8] Just, 794.
[9] Luke 21:28, 31.
[10] 2 Thes 3:7.
[11] Page 32.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Three Ps of Engaged Christians (Luke 18:1-8)

Serious Christians remember a sermon if you simplify it. Hence, the title of my book, Simple Sermons for Serious Christians. Most often, I simplify sermons by hanging three points on one letter. Today, three Ps – Parable, Passage and Prayer.
Three points are easier to remember if they all begin with the same letter. Case in point: An investor analyzes businesses through people, product and process. An entrepreneur states the key to success is passion, patience and perseverance. An anthropologist deems it imperative that males aspiring to be men must protect, procreate and provide. A professor teaches that we handle setbacks through personalization, pervasiveness and permanence. While I do not expect you to remember all those Ps, they illustrate that points are easier to remember if all the words begin with the same letter. That said, for Christians engaged in the world: parable, passage and prayer.
First, parable. What is a parable? Simply defined, a parable is a short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson. It comes to us from the Latin, parabola, and the Greek, parabole, which literally meant ‘a throwing beside.’ Its origin is from the term para, meaning alongside, and bole, a throwing, casting, beam or ray.
The geometrically gifted understand that a parabolic curve refers to a comparison between fixed points and a straight line. The St. Louis Arch and your satellite dish are parabolic curves. Jesus, however, did not teach math or build arches. Rather, he compared real life situations to teach a lesson about God.
Parables were part of Jewish tradition. The Hebrew term for a parable was mashal. We find mashal in the allegories, proverbs, riddles and taunts of Judges, Samuel, Proverbs, Prophets and the intertestamental Book of Enoch. We are familiar with Nathan’s powerful story to David of the rich man who stole and slaughtered the poor man’s prized lamb. It transformed David to a humble, contrite sinner. So, we see that Jesus did not invent parables, but like his ancestors, used them to win people over to his views.
Jesus spoke parables to proclaim the gracious advent, disturbing presence and challenging implications of the Kingdom of God. At times, he opened with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”[1] or, “To what shall I compare?”[2] Often, he concluded with a question. “Which of these three … proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”[3] Today’s parable asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”[4]
While Jesus’ questions did not pressure listeners to choose any one direction, they confronted them with the necessity to make a choice that determined their future. No doubt, his listeners who viewed matters one way now discovered a better way. Discovering a better way resulted in conversion, reconciliation and changed behavior. Once they experienced conversion and reconciliation, his followers transformed society and changed the world. As I conclude my first point on parables, I repeat that last sentence. Once they experienced conversion and reconciliation, his followers transformed society and changed the world.
From parable to passage, my second point. I repeated the last sentence because repetition is effective pedagogy. We learned our catechism by repeating answers to questions. As Luther employed repetition, so did Luke. He emphasized continued prayer in this passage, and humble prayer in the next. The conclusion of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector reads, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”[5]
We also find a parallel between this passage and chapter 11, where Jesus said, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.’”[6] In both, the main character is the petitioned, not the petitioner. The petitioned represents God, who listens and answers, but the attention goes to the petitioner, who asks, seeks and knocks. In other words, do not be afraid to bother God. Do not give up on prayer.
Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray earnestly to the end. Luke recorded that when Jesus was in the Mount of Olives, he was in agony but prayed more earnestly.[7] In Acts, when Peter was in prison, the church prayed earnestly to God for him.[8] Like the widow seeking justice, the disciples’ goal, even in the midst of difficulties, was never give up before the Son of Man returns.
Jesus then described the judge as unrighteous, unaccountable to God and inconsiderate towards people. The listeners understood that this man was not a religious figure, but a secular judge who ruled through the authority of the occupying power, a common practice in the Ancient Middle East. In many cases, people sought justice in these courts because the judicial process was quicker and smoother. We find an indication of this practice in chapter 12. Jesus said, “As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”[9]
The oppressed widow symbolized the helpless and defenseless. She knew she had right on her side, appealed for vindication and expected swift justice. As a favor to her oppressor, a rich and influential man, the judge delayed her hearing.
The judge did not decide according to the exhortations to give widows their rights according to the Law and Prophets. There, we read, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.”[10] “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.”[11] “I will be a swift witness against … those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and fatherless, [and] those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord.”[12]
Yet, the unrighteous, exasperated judge yielded to the widow’s relentless pursuit of justice. He could do nothing to appease her short of giving her a swift hearing based on Roman law. He did so because he was tired of having his reputation sullied and his name ridiculed among his peers because this poor, defenseless widow never gave up seeking justice.
If the unjust judge does right by the widow for whom he does not care – a case in which the chances for a positive outcome are very slim – how much more will God respond to the unceasing cry of his elect, since, in contrast to the judge, he listens favorably to them.[13] The unjust judge did not care for the widow and hardly wanted to listen to her. Our righteous, loving God has a lively interest in his elect and is always prepared to listen to them.
God is always prepared to listen; however, as I mentioned earlier, Jesus often concluded parables with a question. Here, he asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”[14] Will he find disciples actively engaged in prayer?
Will he find disciples actively engaged in prayer? That, folks, leads me to my third point, prayer.
What is prayer? Prayer is the necessary foundation of our work as church and individuals. It is communal and personal. We pray in our sanctuaries and rooms. To paraphrase one holy person, prayer is God looking at me, and me looking at God. It is from the heart, but it is also vocal. We speak the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught it to his disciples.
Prayer involves reading Scripture. Daily, my wife and I read aloud the Psalms. We are also reading the New Testament in the Community Bible Experience. When I pray the Scriptures, I use the Five Ps of Prayer: Passage, Place, Posture, Presence and Passage. This method calls me to read, question and wonder.
Prayer involves thought and imagination, gifts Jesus employed as he formed parables. Praying over Nathan’s story to David may reduce me to a humble, contrite sinner. Pondering Jesus’ closing question in the Parable of the Good Samaritan may leave me wondering if I show mercy to diverse neighbors. Meditating on the Parable of the Prodigal may challenge the depth of my love for father and brother, mother and sister. So, friends, you see why my last point is prayer. When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith in me? Will he find me praying earnestly to the end – like Peter in prison or Jesus in the Mount of Olives?
Jesus based this parable on trust and confidence in God’s help and assistance. He could be so straightforward in his assurance that God hears the cry of his people because he took seriously the action of God in his own life and ministry. He saw it in Israel’s history and the world around him.[15]
We do not live in that history and world. We live in a country with a different history and a different world. Therefore, we pray over this parable in order to relate it to our daily lives. When I pray over the passage, many questions rise to the surface, but let me focus only on a few.
First, who are today’s widows? Who are God’s elect who cry out to him day and night seeking justice? Whose voices are the exploited and oppressed?
Second, Jesus promises that God will give justice to his elect. If I – created in the image and likeness of God, baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, a redeemed sinner and child of God – If I am to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, how do I extend mercy to those who seek justice? If the unjust judge who neither feared God nor respected man knew how to extend justice to the poor, exploited and oppressed widow, to whom do I extend justice?
I asked myself, “Who are the exploited?” As a REALTOR®, I know predatory lenders exploited poor families who lost home and savings. Recalling my work at World Neighbors, an international organization solving hunger, I saw the immensity of poverty in rural Asia, Africa and Latin America. As a fundraiser for a homeless service provider in Berkeley, California, I met many homeless vets and people with mental health disorders. As a program manager for Incarceration to Independence, I interviewed dozens of women exploited by pushers and pimps. I could list scores of exploited and oppressed people who cry out to God seeking justice, but only the unborn do not have a voice.
Abortion killed 700,000 unborn babies last year. In the United States, for every 1,000 babies that were born, we aborted 200.[16] Lutherans for Life, Priests for Life, Operation Rescue, Guttmacher Institute, the CDC and others publish pages of statistics and stories on their websites. Read them. Think about the 80 babies aborted during the length of our worship service, or the 25 during the length of this sermon. Ask yourself if these exploited and oppressed elect of God cried out when aborted because they were inconvenient to the parents.[17]
I concluded my first point by saying that once people heard Jesus’ parables, they experienced conversion and reconciliation, transformed society and changed the world. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”[18] Will he find that Lutherans Engage the World is a reality or simply a magazine?
Friends, these exploited and oppressed people created in the image of God have no voice and yet cry out for justice. As men and women who experienced conversion and reconciliation, our prayers and actions can transform society and change the world. As we approach the election, seriously consider not only people, but also political parties and policies that ignore or respond to those who cry out to God. Let your vote express justice and mercy for those who cry out to God, yet have no voice.
Beyond the ballot box, pray and protest the inhumane slaughter of the innocents, and tax-payer funding of agencies that abort unborn persons. Do this, and know that when the Son of Man returns, he will find you engaged in prayer and in the practice of your faith. When He returns, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Matthew 13;31,33.
[2] Luke 7:31.
[3] Luke 10:36.
[4] Luke 18:8.
[5] Luke 18:14.
[6] Luke 11:5ff.
[7] Luke 22:44.
[8] Acts 12:5.
[9] Luke 12:58-59.
[10] Exodus 22:22. See also Deuteronomy 27:19.
[11] Isaiah 1:23.
[12] Malachi 3:5.
[13] Herman Hendrickx, The Parables of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper & Row (1986). 223.
[14] Luke 18:8.
[15] Hendrickx, 229.
[17] This is the primary reason parents seek abortion.
[18] Luke 18:8.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Three Rs of Christian Living (Luke 16:19-31)

Three Rs, as in the letter R, refers to the foundations of education: reading, writing and arithmetic. We use the phrase “the three Rs” because each word has a strong R sound at the beginning. The term is ironic, since everyone knows that two of the words do not actually begin with the letter R.
During the 17th century, New England teachers summed up learning as "four Rs" - Reading, 'Riting, ‘Rithmetic and Religion. These days, school districts identify three Rs as Relating, Representing and Reasoning. Employers use the words Rapid, Reliable and Repeatable; and environmentalists encourage people to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. All this to say that my three-pointed sermon is Repent, Right and Relationship – and what those Three Rs have to do with Christian living.
First, repent. A simple definition of repent is to feel or show sorrow for something bad or wrong that you did and that you want to do what is right. Repentance is a major theme in Luke, but before Jesus began his earthly ministry, John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.[1]
Jews taught repentance long before John appeared on Jordan’s banks. In Deuteronomy, we read, “When you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.[2]
The Chronicler wrote, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.[3]
Prophets echoed repentance in their preaching. In Isaiah, we read, “This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’”[4] Jeremiah wrote, “After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.[5] Ezekiel exhorted, “If a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live.[6] So, John or Jesus did not introduce repentance. It was present from the days of Moses.
From Repent to Right. Simply defined, right means morally or socially correct; agreeing with the facts or truth; or speaking, acting or judging in a way that agrees with the facts or truth.
Its root word is from the Greek, orektós, and the Latin, rectus, meaning straight. The Ancients said the straight muscles in our bodies Рthe thigh and abdomen Рenable us to stand straight or erect. In English, the word right emerged as straighten or direct, and the obvious connection between right and righteous is easy. God called people to live righteous lives, that is, morally acceptable lives, and called them to stand up straight for themselves and others; that is, to live in relationship with others.
We stand erect and see straight with our brothers and sisters beside us. That brings me our third R – Relationship.
The word relationship means the way two or more people, groups or countries talk to, behave toward or deal with each other, or the way they are connected.
The root word of relationship is the Latin word, relatus, meaning to refer, but initially from latus, meaning side. Think latitude or lats if you exercise. To stand in relation or to have a reference point, or to bring something into relation with something else is how people used the word in the 17th century. "To feel connected or sympathetic to" emerged in psychology around 1950. However used, the word connotes a connection. As God’s people, we relate to one another in righteous living. We stand and see straight with our brothers and sisters beside us.
Now that we have the three concepts – repentance, right and relationship – let us examine our passage.
Our parable opens with Jesus contrasting two characters. The rich man is unnamed, but Jesus named the other man Lazarus, meaning “the one whom God helps.” The rich man lived large. A clothes hog, he covered his body with purple linen and silk, but the only thing that covered Lazarus’ body was sores.
While people reserved feasting for special occasions, this man partied to the extreme. He feasted sumptuously seven days a week. Lazarus, like the prodigal son who would have been content with pig food, yearned to be satisfied with food scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the fact that dogs licked his sores only added to his humiliation. A crippled beggar at the gate of the rich man’s house where people came and went, Lazarus was the perfect recipient for almsgiving.
The parable provides a fitting conclusion to chapter 16 and the attitude toward possessions in view of God’s Kingdom. In addition, the description of the rich man suitably depicted the Pharisees, who were lovers of money. They were like him, who knew, yet ignored Lazarus. On the other hand, Lazarus represented society’s outcasts. Though his life was pathetic and pitiable, his name suggested importance in God’s sight.
At the moment the Pharisees identified with the rich man and the outcast identified with Lazarus, Jesus introduced the Great Reversal. Lazarus died and angels carried him to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man died and was buried.
From Hades, the rich man opened the conversation by asking Father Abraham to have mercy on him. This recalled Pharisees who came to John the Baptist and claimed, “We have Abraham for our father,” yet refused to repent and submit to John’s baptism.[7] Unlike Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, whom Jesus dubbed a son of Abraham,[8] the rich man refused to repent. Zacchaeus repented and welcomed Jesus into his home for he knew that simply being a son of Abraham did not protect him from condemnation.
The rich man did not speak words of repentance. He realized his condition was permanent and pleaded for help. He still thought only of himself and his needs, and not those of Lazarus. In response, Abraham told the rich man to remember what happened, that is, to read back and interpret events that took place. Lazarus begged at the gate, while he lived large and ignored the beggar’s needs.
This parable illuminates the story of the unrighteous steward who showed mercy toward his master’s debtors, because he trusted in the mercy of his master. Because God treats sinners with mercy, the rich man so should have treated Lazarus, and the Pharisees should have treated society’s outcasts with mercy.
Still unrepentant, the rich man requested that Lazarus go to his brothers, for he realized repentance was crucial to salvation. Yet, he did not consider the Word of God sufficient to produce repentance. Instead, he desired a miraculous sign – someone raised from the dead. While the Old Testament contained accounts of the resurrection,[9] why would his brothers believe another’s testimony if they did not believe the Scriptures?
Abraham suggested they listen to Moses and the Prophets read in the synagogue. In other words, heed the Scriptures read during worship and take them to heart. As hearers of the Word, they would know all they need about the kingdom of grace, characterized by mercy and almsgiving to people like Lazarus. The conclusion for the Pharisees is this: If they do not stop scoffing at Jesus’ teaching about the proper use of possessions, they would find themselves with the rich man in eternal torment.
Now, let me examine our Gospel in light of my three Rs of Christian living – repentance, right and relationship.
It is easy to see Jesus’ call for repentance. As I explained earlier, repentance is a basic Biblical teaching, which includes righteous living in relationship with people like Lazarus.
True Sons of Abraham heed God’s commandments. In Exodus, we read, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat. … You shall do likewise with your vineyard and … olive orchard.”[10]
Leviticus legislated, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.”[11] Deuteronomy repeated the command to live righteously with others, [12] and Proverbs taught, “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”[13]
Isaiah exhorted, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”[14]
That Abraham suggested the rich man’s brothers listen to Moses and the Prophets read in the synagogue is the message Jesus directed to the Pharisees. You see, one of Luke’s goals in writing his Gospel was to encourage rich Christians to attend to the needs of the poor and to share material goods. We can easily imagine the impact this parable must have had on the Church’s rich members. Sobering and scary, it should do the same to 21st-century American Christians.
Some early Christian Pharisees who saw no need to observe Old Testament Law regarding right living in relationship with the poor needed to repent more than anyone. Let me repeat that because it applies to Christian living today. Some early Christian Pharisees who saw no need to observe Old Testament Law regarding right living in relationship with the poor needed to repent more than anyone.
We live in a rich country. However slender our personal fortunes, they dwarf the incomes and possessions of people in most countries. I have been out of work since May, but many more poor people rely upon our generosity. In other words, Lazarus is among us! Do we choose to ignore Lazarus? Do we distract ourselves with foolish pleasures as the rich man did?
Neither Jesus nor Luke was an economist or a politician, but at a certain point, the problems of poverty and homelessness turn into economic and political matters. How we deal with the poor personally and socially is one of the challenges we face today.
Most of the time, we live righteous lives in relationship with the poor, and yet, even if that is always true, we cannot afford to gloss over this parable. Pastor Arthur Just, who digs into Luke in his commentary, raises the idea of the proper use of possessions. He writes, “The proper use of possessions in view of the coming age and the Old Testament testimony, including [the] resurrection … prepares people for the Gospel and the life to come.”[15]
The proper use of possessions prepares us for the Gospel and eternal life, and for how we live as a Gospel people today. Folks, if we are not a Gospel people, what kind of people are we? If I am not a living Gospel, what am I? If I am not a repentant sinner who lives righteously in relationship with society’s outcasts – widows, orphans, the poor and the foreigner – what kind of Christian am I? So, my friends, I pose a delicate question: How do I use my possessions? Delicate indeed, but one to ponder.
I worked for an organization that promotes church planting in Asia, Africa and Latin America. One of our donors, a financial advisor, informed me that when he told clients about this nonprofit, some replied, “I want you to tell me how to invest my money, not how to spend it.” In other words, asking people to consider how they use their possessions is a delicate question, but it needs to be pondered.
Friends, I imagine you are in a relationship with our Triune God, and, like the Trinity, in relationship with other people. I ask you to do only one thing. Ponder the three Rs of Christian living. Am I a repentant sinner who strives to live in right relationship with the outcasts of society and share with them my possessions for the greater glory of God? Ponder that question, and when you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Luke 3:3.
[2] Deuteronomy 30:2-3.
[3] 2 Chronicles 7:14.
[4] Isaiah 30:15.
[5] Jeremiah 31:19.
[6] Ezekiel 18:21-22.
[7] Luke 3:7-9.
[8] Luke 19:9.
[9] 2 Kings 4:8-37; 13:20-21.
[10] Exodus 23:10-11.
[11] Leviticus 19:9-10.
[12] Deuteronomy 15:4-8.
[13] Proverbs 28:27.
[14] Isaiah 58:6-7.
[15] Just, 634.