Monday, October 28, 2013

Getting Right with God (and everyone else): A sermon

When we read this parable (Luke 18:9-14), we are automatically prejudiced against the Pharisee. In fact, Luke turns us against the Pharisee in his introduction to the parable. Luke says that Jesus told this to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt (18:9).

Right off we judge the Pharisee as bigoted, judgmental, exclusionary, self-righteous, condescending, and so forth. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Pharisees function somewhat symbolically or representatively of toxic religion or legalistic religion in general. So, we immediately distance ourselves from the Pharisee.

In the original setting, when Jesus first told this story, this would have been reversed. The original hearer would have favored the Pharisee and been biased against the tax collector.

We read the story as if the tax collector were a good guy; just someone who got caught up with the wrong crowd, while the Pharisee is a pinch-nosed snob. But it would have been very different for the first hearers.

We could think of the Pharisee as equivalent to a Baptist minister who preaches God and country, or for that matter, a Methodist or Presbyterian minister (let’s spread this around). This is the outstanding citizen who wants to do good for the community and genuinely thinks God is on his side.

The tax collector is a traitor. Think about who tax collectors were in that day and time. They were Jews who decided to join up with the oppressive Roman government against their own people in order to make a buck. Popular opinion was that they sold their souls to the Devil. They made money on the backs of their Jewish sisters and brothers. They were collaborators in the oppressive regime of Rome.

If the Pharisee is the minister who cares about the country, the tax collector is the guy who sells national security information to the highest bidder. And he does this, not because of some ideological principle or belief, but simply to get rich, to acquire possessions, position, and power.

The minister, on the other hand, is glad to be a worshiper of God and thankful to be able to keep God’s commands. He is thankful that he has not given in to the greed that would motivate a traitor to sell out his friends and family to the enemy. The minister thinks, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The minister does not take credit for his piety; he gives God thanks for his capacity to worship and serve God.

It should be obviously clear that the minister is the good guy and the traitor is the bad guy, right? But then in a stunning reversal, we read that it is the traitor, the greedy scoundrel who leaves the synagogue “justified”—that is, in right relationship with God.

What happens? The traitor, this reprehensible sinner, has a kind of “aha” moment and realizes how despicable he has been.

We have a tendency to read stories like this and create “in” groups and “out” groups. A common way to approach a story like this is to identify with the tax collector, while we distance ourselves from the Pharisee. We tell ourselves that we have nothing in common with the Pharisee and then we say, “I thank you, God, that I am not like that.”

We do this all the time in one way or another. I do this, too, even though I know better. In the recent political debacle of the government shutdown and coming right up to the edge of the debt ceiling it’s easy for me to look at people like Ted Cruz and judge them harshly, to distance myself from them and talk about how crazy they are.

You may have noticed that our governor has recently been on headline news for the work that he has done with Kentucky Connect. He recently told CNN that the Kentucky Exchange is signing up 1000 people a day, that people who never had health coverage are now able to get coverage, that the health exchange in Kentucky is working and is a gold standard for the rest of the country. People who support Affordable Health Care are pointing to Kentucky saying, “Here’s how it can work.”

In that same segment, CNN interviewed congresswomen Renee Ellmers from N.C. who completely ignored and dismissed everything Gov. Bashear said and keep insisting that Affordable Health Care is “a failure at monumental levels.” The CNN reporter, who was hard-pressed not to show her frustration, said to her: “But you are discounting everything that the Kentucky governor is saying. Instead of sitting down with him and saying, governor let’s talk and figure this out together. . . You’re discounting what he has to say outright.” The only thing Congresswoman Ellmers could say in response was: “You’re getting awfully angry about this situation.”

I have to admit to you that when I listen to political representatives say things like that and when I listen to people like Ted Cruz, my first thoughts are, “Thank God, I am not like that.” But then, I have to ask, “Am I not being just as dismissive as the Pharisee in our story?” Am I not rejecting such people outright when I categorize them as crazies and judge them?

So, what can I do? I can approach life with a more inclusive faith. If I approach life with a more inclusive faith then I have to acknowledge that I share in the failure, I share in the human condition that creates such obstructive and diminishing rhetoric. I am part of the problem. And Ted Cruz is my brother and Renee Ellmers is my sister, no matter how much I might dislike what they are doing. We are one people, we are all children of God.

And so we come back to the story. Who is put right with God? Not the minister, but the traitor. How is it that the greedy scoundrel is made right with God, while the good minister is not? How did that happen?

What kind of faith, what kind of interior posture, disposition, orientation, and change can put the most disliked and hated person in right relationship with God and make possible healthy, holistic, healing relationships with others and our planet?

To use traditional language one could say that it is the faith and humility that acknowledges and admits that we are sinners, that we have a sinful and selfish bent that brings about the change. And while that is true, the problem in describing it like that is that for many of us who have grown up in church and heard those words used over and over again, such language has little or no meaning for us.

So let me try to put this in more contemporary terms. Justifying faith—the kind of faith that puts us right with God and each other—is the kind of faith that recognizes and admits our complicity in oppression and injustice. Some people are more complicit than others, some people are greater sinners than others, but we are all culpable, we are all at fault, we are all complicit in injustice.

Remember the story of the rich man who lived in luxury while the poor man was reduced to begging at his gate. I am the rich man, and so are you. Remember the story of the prodigal who without regard for the father took his inheritance and left home, squandering it all through selfish living, thinking only of himself. I am the prodigal, and so are you. Remember the elder brother, who was bitter and angry and resentful when his father killed the special calf and threw a party when his younger brother came home. I’m the elder brother, and you are too. Remember the warning Jesus gave to those who would cause a little one to stumble. I am the offender, I am the one who causes the little one to stumble and so are you. Even though I preach and work for restorative justice, I have to admit that I am complicit in the injustice of our society, and so are you.

Episcopal priest, Martha Sterne, tells about being in her local county Domestic Court as part of the mission of the Ecumenical Council to have a clergy presence there, and this was here day to serve. Mostly, she says, she just sits and prays. It’s so very chaotic. Trials get set time and time again. Victims don’t show up, either because they don’t want to prosecute or are scarred to prosecute. People sit in little clumps scattered around the room, and after a while it becomes apparent which clumps are furious with the other ones. She says that it is a difficult place to gather a lot of hope for the human condition.

This particular morning, the head public defender approached the judge with some papers and said, “Your honor, I hate to bring this up, but Mrs. Smith called me and she said she was kind of wondering why she was still in jail after you said you’d let her out. And I checked around and it looks like you put the wrong case number on the discharge papers.”

The judge looked at the paper and looked at the lawyer and frowned a very cynical kind of frown, and said, “Well, now let me tell you that I am just mightily sick and tired of having my mistakes brought to my attention.” Isn’t that a great line: “I am mightily sick and tired of having my mistakes brought to my attention.” I can understand that, can’t you?

It’s hard, sometimes, to face all our failures and faults and shortcomings. It’s easier to ignore them. It’s even harder to admit our complicity in injustice because we are all caught up in unjust systems and after all, we are just doing what everyone else is doing right?

We are all somewhat like the drunk trying to walk a straight line. He looks down at the line right in front of him; it’s so simple really and he’s so intent on doing it right, but he staggers all over the place.

We stagger. We can’t find our balance. Our vision is skewed. We don’t think straight. We can’t make our actions conform to our will. We don’t want to be complicit in injustice, but we can’t help it. The current we are caught up in is so swift and fast, we are just swept along and we don’t know how to get out.

Sometimes our vision is so skewed that we become grateful for our complicity. I came across this little cartoon by David Hayward titled: The fault with default Christianity. It’s a take on the prayer of the Pharisee. A man kneeled over very humbly prays: “O Lord, I want to thank you that I was born in the west and not some other God-forsaken place, and that I was able to become a Christian by default. I’m thankful that I don’t have to think hard about what I believe. I can accept without a second thought everything that’s fed me, and that I can support the status quo with a clear conscious without interrupting my comfortable way of life. You’ve made me what I am today without any effort on my part. I haven’t had to think, question, or change a thing, and for that I am truly grateful.”

I am not a proponent of what some call “worm” theology. I don’t believe we have to wallow around in our wretchedness. I don’t think we have to keep blaming ourselves and punishing ourselves to the point that we think ourselves no good at all or that would cause us to withdraw in timidity and self-contempt.

I believe that original blessing is more important than original sin. That as God’s beloved children we have the potential to be divine image bearers, we have the potential to overcome our biases and prejudices, we have the potential to overcome our meanness and ugliness and nurture compassion and cooperation. We may do evil, but that’s not who we are. I believe that we are first of all God’s daughters and sons and have the potential to do much good.

But if we are to do much good, then we have to realize and admit our involvement in that which is not good, we have to see and perhaps in some real sense “feel” how our complicity in injustice has hurt others.

The parable only tells us about how this traitor gets right with God. That’s where the story stops. But if we wanted to add another segment to the story, we could write it. We could go on and tell how the tax collector went out and made amends, how he got right with all the people he took money from and cheated, we could tell how he did right by all the people he oppressed and made life hard for. We could write that chapter to the story, because once he became aware, once he became enlightened, once he became open to the mercy of God and once he received that mercy, then he would have extended that mercy to everyone else, because that’s how it works. The humility, honesty, and repentance that puts him in right relationship with God is the same humility, honesty, and repentance that puts him in right relationship with everyone else.

If he had not extended the mercy he had received to others, then he would not have really received it to begin with. He may have presumed he received it. He may have convinced himself he had received it. But if he had not extended that mercy to others, then he would not have been “justified.”

Gracious God, we are so blind to our own sin, our own complicity in evil, to the many ways we are swept and carried along by our biases and prejudices. Help us to see the ways we have been complicit and still are complicit in systems of injustice. Help us to see the ways we have been dismissive and condemnatory of others. Help us to be aware of our propensity toward exceptionalism and elitism and classism and all the others isms that are so life diminishing and deadly. We are so prone to divide the world between the saved and the lost, and we don’t realize how lost we are and how much we need saving. We fail to realize how much we need to grow and change. Help us to nurture the kind of faith, honesty, humility, and compassion that puts us in right relations with you and every one and every thing else. Amen.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

When God Looks at Our World, What Does God See?

 The conclusion to the parable of the widow and unjust judge is a question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

In this context, faith is not about believing certain things; rather, it is about being faithful to God’s cause in the world. Unfortunately, the major concern of many Christians relates to believing things about Jesus. Can you imagine why that would be important to God? Can you think of a good reason why believing things about Jesus would make much difference to God? Faith doesn’t depend on reason, but shouldn’t our faith be a reasonable faith?

Surely, God cares more about how we treat one another than the specifics of our beliefs. More important than believing things about Jesus or even having faith in Jesus is the need to have the faith of Jesus, to be faithful to the cause (kingdom) of God in the world.

To have the faith of Jesus means that we will love God and neighbor as ourselves, even if the neighbor is a Samaritan, even if the neighbor is someone we don’t particularly like, or even if the neighbor is someone who wants to do us harm. To have the faith of Jesus means that we will pray for him and do good by him.

To have the faith of Jesus means that we will trust God with our fears, insecurities, and anxieties, and seek first God’s just world. It means that we will join Christ in his work to liberate the oppressed and set the captives free—whether the captivity is to physical disease, mental illness, spiritual angst, or whether it is a captivity to political, social, economic, or religious powers that exclude, impoverish, and destroy life.

The question, “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?” can be translated into our time and context by asking: When the living Christ, when God, when the Divine (use whatever name you like) looks at our world (we are using human images and words to talk about God here because that is all we have), what does God see?

Does God see people who are being faithful to live in right relationship to each other, to God, and to the creation?

If you have not seen the movie, The Abyss (1989), I urge you to. A US ballistic missile submarine, the USS Montana, sinks near the edge of the Cayman Trough after some accidental encounter with an unidentified object. With a hurricane moving in and Soviet ships and submarines wanting to get to the sub, the Americans decide that the quickest way to mount a rescue is to insert a navy SEAL team onto a privately owned, experimental underwater oil drilling platform called the Deep Core. The designer of the platform, Dr. Lindsey Brigman, insists on accompanying the SEAL team, even though her estranged husband, Virgil “Bud” Brigman, is currently serving as the platform’s foreman.

As the SEALS and platform crew attempt to discover the cause of the Montana’s failure, they come into contact with strange creatures they cannot identify, which they later call “NTIs” (“non-terrestrial intelligence”). The story is largely about their interaction with the NTI’s and the renewal of the relationship between Bud and Lindsey, who had never stopped loving one another.

When one of the Navy SEALS goes crazy, they lose a live nuclear warhead timed to explode down the trough where the NTI’s live. Bud descends on a one way trip to disarm it. He communicates by means of a keypad on his arm. He says to Lindsey, “Knew this was a one-way ticket, but you knew I had to come.” The last thing he says is, “Love you, wife.”

After he disarms the warhead, he waits to die. Just as his air is about to run out and he is about to lose consciousness, an NTI comes to his side and takes him to a massive NTI spacecraft sitting in the trench. In the ship, they create an atmosphere for him to breathe.

The NTI’s have created enormous megasunami-level waves that threaten every coastline; they are stalled towering above the coasts. The NTI’s show Bud images of humanity’s destructive behavior on a view screen, destroying and killing one another. But then they show the messages of self-sacrifice and love he wrote with his keypad. The NTI’s conclude that there is hope for humanity and they cause the standing sunamis to recede harmlessly back into the sea.

In spite of all the ways we mar and malign, diminish and destroy one another and our planet, I believe that God sees the human potential for goodness, for justice, for love.

Jeremiah envisions a day when the hearts of God’s people are so changed that they don’t even need laws to tell them what to do, because they instinctively know what to do, they intuitively know how to act justly, live mercifully, and walk humbly (Jer. 31:31-34). Certainly Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant was a God inspired vision.

Like the NTI’s watching humanity, God sees what we can become. I believe God has great hope for humanity. God obviously has great patience.

The early Christians asked, “When the Son of Man comes will he find us faithful, will he find us praying for and working for justice?” We should be asking, “When God takes an inventory of our lives and relationships right now, when God’s looks at us, what does God see?

Does God see us involved and engaged in God’s redemptive and restorative justice? Are we praying for and serving God’s dream for a world made right and whole? Are we becoming more or are we becoming less than what God hopes for and is calling us to be? 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Justice for All the Forgotten Ones

Luke interprets Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:2-8) as a call to persistent prayer (18:1). But it’s not just any kind of prayer is it? Surely the prayer Luke has in mind is prayer for justice. “Grant me justice,” cries the widow.

The reason it is a widow being treated unjustly is because in that culture widows were extremely vulnerable. They could not inherit their husband’s property, there were no social welfare programs in place, and for the most part there were no opportunities for independent employment. This is why some widows turned to prostitution—to survive. This is a story about justice.

By justice, I do not mean, “getting what one deserves.” Unfortunately, that’s how some Christians understand it. If justice means getting what one deserves, then none of us should pray for justice; we should pray for grace. But that is not what is meant when the prophets and when Jesus talk about justice.

The biblical term “justice” is equivalent to and often used interchangeably with the biblical word “righteousness.” To pursue justice or righteousness is to pursue that which makes for right relations and good will between human beings and communities, between God and human beings, and between human beings and all creation. It basically means being in right relationship – with God, each other, and everything else. Justice is about that which makes everything right, whole, just, and good. The heart of restorative justice is love of God and neighbor.

This most certainly includes compassion, forgiveness, and grace—and all other relational attributes and powers that restore and heal relationships. It includes creation care. It includes the minority as well as the majority. It involves defending and uplifting the poor and downtrodden. It involves equality, inclusion, and the well-being of all people. It involves basic human rights and freedoms.

This is why Christians must care about such things as immigration reform, climate change, fairness laws, equality in the work place, unjust social and economic systems that produce poverty and a huge disparity between rich and poor, etc. These are all issues that pertain to justice and righteousness. 

The logic in the story moves from the lesser to the greater. The logic is that if an unjust judge, who “neither feared God nor had respect for people” was compelled to act justly on behalf of the widow who pestered him day and night, how much more will God, who is compassionate and good, act justly on behalf of the oppressed.

In one sense the story is future oriented. The story teller asks: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? (The “chosen ones” are equivalent to the “little ones” who Jesus warns about causing to stumble in 17:2, represented here by the widow.) Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I suspect that, in its original setting, this story reflects the belief of the early Jesus followers in the imminent consummation and clean up of the world that would come with the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. The first wave of disciples was expecting this in their lifetime.

They did not believe they would be evacuated from the earth while the rest of the world destroyed itself in a global holocaust, as some Christians today believe. They did believe, however, that God would be wrapping things up fairly quickly, that the resurrected Christ would return in some interventionist way to make the world right. Obviously that didn’t happen, so the church has had to readjust its expectations.

Many Christians are still waiting and expecting some kind of visible or personal return by Christ to clean things up and bring the kingdom of God to fulfillment. Personally, I’m not one of those Christians. The living Christ is here (among us, in us, pervading our world) and our task is to be collaborators and partners with Christ in helping to create a just world. I think Christians today need to apply a spiritualizing, de-apocalyptic hermeneutic to such future oriented texts.

And what we may think of as a “delay” may not be a delay at all. God’s experience of “quickly” is most certainly very different from our experience of “quickly.” If 98% of the scientists in our world are right, it took approximately 13.8 billion years (give or take a few million) for life to evolve to its present state. Surely, God experiences time differently than we do.

The main point or truth in this story is not “when” or even “how” God will clean things up and make things right. The central point is that because God is the kind of God he/she is, there will be vindication for God’s chosen ones (little ones) who are beaten down by the powers that be.

These “chosen ones” are largely forgotten ones. For every murder or imprisonment or injustice that we hear about, there are thousands of others who suffer and die alone in silence.

The question is: Will they be vindicated? These who cry day and night for justice; these who suffer and die and are forgotten, will they be vindicated? Jesus says: If an unjust judge can be compelled to execute justice, then how much more will the loving, compassionate, just God of creation vindicate those who have suffered unjustly.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Christian Participation in the Common Good

According to Jeremiah 29, apparently the Jewish exiles of the first deportation to Babylon were being led to believe that a return to Palestine was imminent. To counter this, Jeremiah sends a letter to the elders and leaders telling them to settle in Babylonia and to even pray and work for the good of the state:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah’s instruction runs counter to a theology of Jewish exceptionalism. He ties Israel’s well-being to the well-being of society at large. This is nothing less than a call to invest in the common good.

For Christians to be full participants in the common good, we have to relinquish Christian exceptionalism (the view that only Christians are God’s people and know God’s will). An inclusive faith recognizes our solidarity with and connection to every other person.

News reporter and commentator Peter Arnett told about the time he was in a small town on the West Bank in Israel when an explosion went off. Screams sounded from all directions. .

A man suddenly emerged from the chaos holding a severely wounded little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Arnett to help him get her to a hospital. He cried, “Please Mister, help me. The Israeli troops have sealed off the area. No one can get in or out. But you are press. You can get through. Please, help me!”

So Arnett put them in his car, managed to get through the sealed area, and rushed the girl to a hospital in Jerusalem. The whole time he was hurtling down the road to the city, the man with the little girl in his arms kept pleading for him to hurry, “Can you go faster. I’m losing her! I’m losing her!” 

When they finally arrived at the hospital, the girl was rushed to the operating room. Then the two men retreated to the waiting area, where they sat on a bench in silence, too exhausted to talk. After a short while, the doctor emerged from the operating room with the news that the girl had died.

The man collapsed in tears. Arnett went over and put his arm around him to comfort him. He said, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.” The moment he said, “I’ve never lost a child,” the man looked at Arnett in a startled manner. He said, “Oh Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was not my child. But, you know, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.”

That is the kind of faith that inspires work for the common good and will help us realize God’s dream for the world. Such faith does not gloss over substantive differences, but the deeper truth that transcends all our different beliefs and worldviews is that we are all one people, one family in the Divine.

Unfortunately, Christian exceptionalism is still pervasive and dominates much traditional Christian thinking, worship and evangelism today. And it poses a great obstacle to Christian participation in the common good.

In addition to recognizing that we are all God’s children and constitute one people, a second universal truth that can inspire Christians to engage in the common good is the admission that we all need God’s grace and human love and support.

Jean Vanier founded the L’Arche communities in France that has now spread to other places. These are communities where the mentally disabled live in community with their assistants, those committed to caring for their needs.

Vanier says: “People come to l’Arche to serve the needy. They only stay if they have discovered that they themselves are needy, and that the good news is announced by Jesus to the poor, not to those who serve the poor.”

The good news is announced to the poor, not those who serve the poor. Maybe that is why Matthew’s version of Luke’s beatitude, “Blessed are the poor,” reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Matthew’s version may not be so much a spiritualizing of Jesus’ original saying as it is a recognition that regardless of our economic status, place, or condition we are all poor, we are all in this together. Our spiritual well-being depends on our readiness and willingness to confess our own physical, psychological, and spiritual poverty.

Whatever our economic or social or psychological condition or status, we are all wounded and broken in numerous ways. None of us have any claim to a place of honor or privilege.

If we can acknowledge and accept our personal faults and brokenness, as well as the faults and brokenness of our faith communities and traditions, this will help to ignite and sustain a passion to work for the common good of all.

If more Christians could claim and live these two truths—our solidarity and unity with the human family as God’s children and the essential need of every person for God’s grace and human support and love—we could make a significant impact in realizing God’s dream for a just world where the common good prevails. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Rich Man and Lazarus, Part 3: The Real Tragedy

The real tragedy in this story (Luke 16:19-31) is not simply that the rich man finds himself in misery. We all find ourselves in misery at some stage or at various stages in our lives.   

I don’t believe hell is one particular place. I think it is many places, conditions, and experiences that we all have to live through in order to grow, to learn, to become more than what we are. We all have our “hells” to live through.

As the Apostles Creed says, Jesus “descended into hell.” We all descend into hell. What is more tragic is living through these “hells” and failing to learn and grow. Now that is tragic.

This story talks about a chasm that is fixed, where one can’t pass from one sphere to the other, but one can see across it. It’s important to see where we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Taking a good honest look at our past, our present, and where we are headed into the future is very important to real transformation and moral development. 

I believe the symbolism of the fixed chasm is that it’s fixed only as long as one is unaware, only as long as one remains blind and unrepentant, like in the case of the unpardonable sin that Jesus talks about. It’s only unpardonable as long as one persists in it.

God doesn’t withhold forgiveness from anyone. God never locks the door, but the door has to be opened from the inside. God doesn’t coerce or force or manipulate or overpower. Unless one is willing to see and admit one’s faults and sins, unless one is open, humble, and receptive to God’s forgiveness and guidance, there can be no real repentance and change.

Think of the irony in the story. The rich man, finding himself in misery, instead of admitting his love of money and the way he rationalized the disparity between his wealth and Lazarus’ poverty, instead of repenting, he asks for Lazarus to bring him some relief and then be sent to warn his brothers.

Who is he thinking about? He wants Lazarus to serve him and his family. He hasn’t learned anything. No wonder there is a chasm that he can’t cross over. He is still totally self-absorbed.

That’s the real tragedy. When we go through some hellish experience and we learn nothing and come out as self-absorbed as ever, that’s a tragedy.

Have you ever been around a religious person who is totally self-absorbed? Have you ever been that person? They show interest in you only as it benefits them. Because it’s all about their faith, their family, their church, their brand of Christianity or religious faith.

This story, in addition to so many teachings and sayings of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, shows us that God is on the side of the poor. The question is not simply: Am I my brother’s keeper? Of course I am. The larger question is: What am I doing about it?

To spend one’s life defending the disparity between the haves and have-nots and rationalizing a theology of wealth and success, or to descend into hell and learn nothing from the experience is truly tragic. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Rich Man and Lazarus, Part 2: Justifying the Disparity

Luke’s introduction to the story of the rich man and Lazarus reads: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this [Jesus’ teaching about not being able to serve God and money—that money is a rival god] and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God’” (Luke 16:14-15).

How did the religious leaders justify their love for and accumulation of money? It wasn’t that difficult. A number of Scriptures teach that material wealth is the blessing of God and that disease and impoverishment is the result of God’s judgment. If there were no Scriptures to support this view there would be no prosperity gospel preachers with huge empires. Joel Osteen would not have the largest church in America if he did not have Scriptures he could employ to justify his theology of wealth and material blessing. It’s in the Bible. It’s bad theology, but it’s in the Bible.

The rich man would have appealed to this theology to justify his lack of response. He may have even argued that Lazarus’s condition was due to the judgment of God, so if he tried to alleviate his poverty or bring some relief to his suffering, he would be interfering with God’s will. (This sounds similar to the arguments of some of the Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to cut money for food stamps and programs that assist the poor.)

Of course, there is also a counter theology in the Bible that reaches its pinnacle in the life and teachings of Jesus. We find it in the Law. For example, Deut. 15:7-8 reads: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of the 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.”

It’s also pervasive in the prophets. Isaiah says: “Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . .? 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 them, and not to hide yourself . . .?” (58:6–7).  Here are two different theologies about money and blessing. 

So does the Bible contradict itself? Yes, it does. The Bible argues with itself on any number of issues. No matter how “inspired” the biblical writers were, they were flawed, sinful, finite human beings. The Bible contains bad theology and good theology; the Bible contains good social and ethical practice as well as bad social and ethical practice. There are texts of transformation and texts of terror. Both slave owners and abolitionists made their cases by appealing to Scripture.

And not only does the Bible argue with itself, we who read the Bible bring all our assumptions, presuppositions, beliefs, and biases into the interpretative process. How often do we go to the Bible to prove some point about what we already believe? 

When reading the Bible, the issue is not: Do I bring my biases with me into this process of interpreting and applying Scripture? Of course we do. It’s not a question of whether or not we have biases. We all have biases and we bring these with us into the reading of the text. The question is: What are our biases? Do we read with a bias to prove some doctrinal point or to exclude some person or group? Or do we read Scripture with a bias for inclusion and with a vision for the common good?

We have to choose what we will accept and reject. We have to discern and decide which texts will have authority in our lives and the degree of authority we will grant them. This process is more complicated and messier that simply saying, “I believe the whole Bible is literally the Word of God.” But even those who make such a claim do not actually practice it.

One does not need a theology degree to be able to discern what is good theology and bad theology. One simply needs to ask:
* Will believing and doing this make me a more loving, compassionate, forgiving,                              gracious, good, caring person?
* Will it make me more like Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels?
* Will this help me love God more and love my neighbor as myself?
* Will this advance the common good and the well-being of all God’s children?  

One does not need to be trained in historical-critical methods of interpretation or theological systems or church history to answer the above questions. The light of God is within each of us. The most important thing is to be open, honest, humble, and receptive to the Divine Voice within us and to bring with us to the sacred text a bias toward grace. 

The more loving we are toward others (especially the disadvantaged) and the more humble and honest we are about our own sins and faults, the less likely we are to use Scripture to justify bad theology, oppressive social policies, and self-serving ethical practices.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Rich Man and Lazarus, Part 1

Growing up I often heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 preached in revival services, usually on pack-the-pew night.

The late Ken Chafin, well known in Baptist circles, told about a friend in college who use to preach a lot at small country churches. Chafin received cards from his friend saying something like: 35 saved in Rival at the Mossy Bottom Baptist Church. Chafin thought that was pretty good since they only had about 25 members.

It ignited his curiosity, so he decided to go hear him preach. It was a Friday night and his friend’s sermon that evening was on the Great White Throne Judgment (the text coming out of the book of Revelation). The preacher was decked out in white: white suit, white tie, white shirt, white belt, and even white shoes. He thundered from the pulpit that if you didn’t become white as snow through the blood of the lamb you will find yourself literally in one hell of a predicament, a hell of fire and brimstone. Chafin said that he didn’t think he was going to get home that night until the preacher was sure that all 52 people present had decided to purchase fire insurance.

Now, I must say as clearly as I can: This story is not about where you go when you die. This story is about this life, not the afterlife. 

This story is not unique to Jesus. It was a traveling story, showing up in several different cultures. Some scholars believe the story originated in Egypt. Some form of this story can be found in the teachings of a number of different rabbis. So Jesus utilizes a story pattern common to his world and then adapts it for his own purpose.

This is a story about the injustices and inequities of this life and how we justify these inequities and injustices. It is also about God’s vindication. In a pattern that is common to Luke’s Gospel, those who suffer unjustly, the poor who have been rejected, excluded, forgotten, ignored, and marginalized in society will be vindicated.

This story is about God’s assessment of the disparity between the rich and the poor, the well-to-do and the down-and-out, the haves and the have-nots. And the story paints the contrast in the starkest colors.

The rich man engages in conspicuous consumption. He dines at the most expensive restaurants. He dresses in the finest clothes. His gated, luxurious estate is filled with every convenience. The impoverished man at his gate is covered in soars. He has no health care. He can’t even find an open soup kitchen to get a meal. Congress has cut off his food stamps.

The rich man is living in the lap of luxury while Lazarus is living in abject poverty.

I find it interesting that Lazarus is named in the story. The very ones who are no-names in society, the forgotten ones, are the very ones God gives special consideration and attention.

While God loves everyone, God takes special interest in the disadvantaged and suffering. This is how Jesus defines his ministry in Luke’s Gospel: to bring good news to the poor, to preach freedom for captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus goes around telling people: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:20-21).

But then Jesus also says: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24-25).

The tables will be turned says Jesus. A great reversal is coming. 

Mary, in the Magnificat, sings about it as if it is a done deal: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

Jesus often puts it this way: The first will be last and the last will be first.

Whether or not that is good news depends, I suppose, on which side of the tracks we are standing.

Jesus says that he was sent to bring good news to the poor. Is it bad news to the rich? Something to think about.