Saturday, July 23, 2016

Luke 16:19-31 Do Unto Others As...

9 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 

Building off the phrase, 'you cannot serve God and wealth' (16:13), Luke contrasts a very happy rich man and a very ill poor man. Several other previous verses also cleverly set us up for this parable, '..that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God' (16:15), 'the Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John..' (16:16), and '..he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery' (16:18). The rich man effectively committed 'adultery' in that by ignoring the Law, he easily strayed from his rightful 'spouse' - God - and married another - 'wealth'. It is not that money is detestable to God, but when our esteem of money exceeds our love of God and our fellow man, then God is more than a little miffed.  

Jesus did not use names in his parables, except in this one parable, which is only found in Luke's gospel. Curiously, it is the name of the rich man that is unknown, yet the poor man's name was intentionally given -  Lazarus - which means, 'God has helped'. It has been believed by some that Jesus intentionally used the name Lazarus to underscore the fact that it is the disenfranchised who receive the abundance of heaven's attention, as they should ours. There was, as we know, a man named Lazarus, who actually was a close friend of Jesus (Jn 11:1-44; 12:1-11), again suggesting that friendship with God begins with complete dependence upon God's help. 

Additionally, a name was given to the poor man because it is important to remember that God knows each person by name, valuing each person. The rich man was proud of his name - a name that the whole community knew well. His name has been lost to history. To the rich man, Lazarus hardly existed, was a nuisance, and was not viewed as any more valuable than the dogs. To have known Lazarus by name was to give him humanity, to respect him as a precious individual. Jesus turned all the thinking of the rich man upside down by giving the poor man a name and leaving the rich man nameless.

The rich man, by the way, wasn't necessarily an evil man. He did minimally abide by the letter of the Law by permitting the crumbs from his table to be made available to those outside his gate - the 'animals'. This story, of course, was a volley sent directly at the Pharisees - the rich men. Note their response to Jesus even before this parable. 'Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him' (16:14).

Lazarus,  representing the 'have nots' - was not permitted inside the gate of the rich man - representing the 'haves'. Even the dogs treated Lazarus better than the rich man treated him. The picture of Lazarus being 'laid' at the gate, suggests that he was on his deathbed, totally helpless, hoping that others would pick up the crumbs and feed him. Heaven-side, though, Lazarus lived wonderfully inside the pearly gates while the rich man was tormented in 'hell'.

22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 

Role reversals. There isn't any mention that Lazarus was a man of faith, only that he was helpless. Thus, he becomes an excellent example of being saved by grace - unmerited favor. He wasn't saved by beliefs, church attendance, good works, or even by faith. He was 'saved because of grace alone', because he was totally dependent upon the grace of others.

All we know, at least so far in the parable, is that the rich man had every opportunity to become a person of faith. In other words, he wasn't help back by lack of means or by the overwhelming existence of huge obstacles. The only thing that kept the rich man from salvation was his neglect to exercise faith, to see that he needed to change. He was like the Laodicean, saying: 'I am rich and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing. He would not permit himself to see the truth, that he was actually 'wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked' (Rev. 3:17). After death, the rich man was shown his real status.

We could conclude that if the ability to exercise faith is available, one can only be save by grace through faith. Yet, if faith is unavailable, then we are saved by grace alone. Thus, in this case, neither man placed their faith in God, yet one was saved (Lazarus) and one was not (the rich man), and the difference was only opportunity. One had it, but didn't use it; the other didn't have it, so God acted by grace for him.

We could, of course, assume that Lazarus was, implicitly, a man of faith. Yet, we have already noted several stories in Luke's gospel where faith was not required for God to work a miracle. Though grace is unmerited favor, it is still God's prerogative to offer it.

Notice also that when the poor man (Lazarus) died, angels came and carried him away, yet when the rich man died, fellow human beings had to come and carry him away to be buried. This is an excellent example for why parables should not be read literally. If we took this parable literally, we might suspect that truly 'saved' people would suddenly disappear after death as angels whisked them away to paradise. In other words, if your body had to be buried, then you were like the rich man - on your way to hell. If your body disappeared after death, then that would be the evidence you were taken to paradise. But... 

23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and *saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 

We humans are a dull lot. So often, no matter how gifted with intelligence, blessed by wealth, and well-educated, the old saying remains true: 'you can take the man out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the man.' Unless a person chooses to be open-minded, no amount of travel, life experiences, and advanced education will be able to change him, which is probably why the scriptures command parents to 'train up their children in the way of the lord, so that when they are older they won't depart from it " (Prv 22:6). In other words, to train up a child to be a humble, life-long learner.

Sure, sometimes education, travel, and natural intelligence can be influential in changing a person's worldview, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Human nature resists change, especially after the first few years of life have installed the foundations of a particular worldview. Can we change? Sure. But seldom. Why? Our nature is such that we are more apt to avoid pain than to embrace pleasure. For most people, change is one of the most painful things in life. 

All that being said, the wealthy man - not only wanted to avoid pain, he couldn't imagine changing. He still wanted to order Lazarus around. He 'couldn't see the forest for the trees' - even after descending into the pit. This is quite a sad commentary on human nature - one that is repeated in both the old and new testaments. His torment got his brief attention - 'he lifted up his eyes' - but he remained committed to the fundamental principles of his worldview - he was entitled to whatever he wanted.

25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 

Here is heaven's response. Lazarus embraced his pain and received eternal pleasure as a result. The rich man did everything he could to avoid pain, and spent eternity swallowed up by pain.

Human nature doesn't change much over time. It is best to train up our children to not fear change. To live a repentant life means we never assume we have reached perfection, thus we will always need to make changes to better ourselves.  There is a difference between making changes to the way we view the world and making changes to the world around us.

Abraham's response to the rich man is instructive. There comes a point of no return, a point where heaven says, enough is enough. Reading this parable more literally, implies that after death there is no grace, that all our choices must be made on this side of the grave. In fact, if we really do take this story literally, even the 'saved' cannot help their loved ones who have died apart from faith. The unsaved remain unsaved in the place of torment. 

27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 

Ok, finally admits the rich man. I see the consequences of my own choices. But, even If the 'saved' in paradise can't help me after death, can they at least be sent to help those still living?  The rich man was still speaking out of his sense of entitlement. He expected heaven to listen and act on his behalf.

Abraham's response leaves the door slightly open in this regards. Heaven would not send anyone from heaven to hell in order to 'save' someone from hell, but heaven might send someone to those who are still living. Yet even here, heaven suggests that it would be pointless to send a 'saved' person from paradise to the living who have access to the truth. A mortal who has access to the truth, but does not choose to wrestle each day to conform his/her life to the truth, is a person who is closed to change. Yet, that doesn't mean heaven would not send a 'saved' person from paradise to someone who honestly wants to learn more.

If someone does not listen to Moses (the Law) and the Prophets, there is nothing else that heaven can say that will convince them. They have rejected the heaven-sent 'tutor' that was designed to lead them to faith in Christ. Again, the issue is not about providing a better education and more opportunities in life. A mind that has been trained to remain self-satisfied, is a closed mind no matter what. Unless a person has been raised to think critically and to be a humble, life-long learner, there isn't anything much heaven can do short of knocking that person off his/her donkey, as with Saul (Paul). Yet even in Saul's situation, the intervention only worked because there was an desire for the truth in Saul's heart.

30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The rich man persisted. He was not willing to accept 'no' for an answer - which is another piece of evidence that he hadn't yet grasped the way of God. He continued to demand his own way. He continued to only think about himself and his own tribe. 

What if he had really gotten on his knees, even in 'hell', and humbled himself before God, rather than to persistently attempt to tell God what He must do? Is that a possibility in 'hell'? 

So, the rich man comes up with another plan. If heaven would just do something miraculous, as Jesus did with Paul, then the rich man's loved ones will change their ways. If someone approached them that they knew had died, yet visited them from heaven, wouldn't get their attention?

Not so, said the voice from heaven. Unless a person is determined to change, it would be a miracle for a miracle to work.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Luke 16:10-18 Faithfulness

10 “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. 11 Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? 12 And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 

I have several 'mantras' that effectively remind me to be faithful in the little things of life. One mantra is: 'anything worth doing, is worth doing right'. Related to this notion are the lesser commandments, 'finish what you start', 'if it is not yours, don't touch it', and 'put things back where you found it'. I am often shocked to encounter folks who don't have these 'voices' installed in their heads.

Here is a compilation of some of the well known 'rules for a healthy community':

If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.
If it is right to do, do it right even when no one is looking.
If it isn’t yours, don’t touch it.
I you use it, replace it.
If you move it, return it.
If you unlock it, lock it up again.
If you turn it on, turn it off.
If you spill it, immediately clean it up.
If you drop it, pick it up.
If it is already in your hands, deal with it completely.
If you start it, finish it.
If you open it, shut it.
If you shut it, shut it completely.
If you don’t see it at first, look more carefully.
If it is trash, trash it.
If you break it, either fix it or replace it.
If you did wrong, admit it.
If someone else is talking, listen.
If you have something to say, first make sure others are ready/willing to listen.
If other s are still sleeping, do something quiet.
If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.
If you’ve never used it, get rid of it.
If you live with others, don’t live as if you are still single.
If its got a label, read it.
If its is expired, dump it.
If you have more than you need, share it.
If you have to make noise, first warn nearby others.
If it is going to make a smell, open up a window.
If you need space, say so.
If you are in a bad mood, go to your room.
If it is none of your business, leave it alone.
If you don’t like it, someone else might.
If it is illegal, don’t do it.
If it is legal, consider the circumstances/context.
If s/he is human, show respect - even if you don’t agree.
If there is a queue, wait your turn.
If you make a promise, keep it.
If you set a time, be on time.
If it is common space, don’t leave your stuff for someone else to move.
If it is different, that doesn’t mean it is bad.
If someone agrees with you, that doesn’t make it right.
If it’s dirty, clean it. 
If you want to be trusted in big things, be faithful in the little things.
If you aren't willing to walk your talk, then stop talking.

How many of these 'rules' speak to you in your daily life? What are some other 'rules'?

13 No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Is it possible to be of two minds? Yes. Is it possible to hold two conflicting notions in tension? Sure. Is it reasonable expect to see pros and cons in two very different leaders? Yep. But, can a person walk in two different directions at the same time? No.

In our two party political system, the articulated key values are starkly different. Yet, it is possible to resonate with certain values in both parties. When it comes time to vote, a choice must be made. If we choose not to vote, then we simply allow someone else to choose for us, which effectively short-circuits our griping rights. If we choose to vote for one over the other, we have chosen a direction. We may not like everything that comes with that choice, but by voting for it we must take the bad with the good, since we have clearly found more 'good' in that direction than bad. A protest vote, choosing a candidate from a third or fourth party that clearly cannot win, is a vote for/against one of the two major parties. 

In other words, whether we take action or not, we are making a decision. Each decision has repercussions. Life is full of decisions. It is therefore important to be as well-informed as possible.There is no escape from decision-making in life.

14 Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. 15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.

Few people enjoy having their motives publicly revealed. Truth be told, all of us make decisions for less than intelligent reasons. Sometimes our decisions are made to satisfy some self-indulgence, out of anger at someone or something, in order to be accepted by a particular group, or because we've been too lazy to first seek out the facts. Jesus called the Pharisees out on the motives behind their choices.

When our motives are exposed for what they really are, we may either acknowledge our wrong, or double down on our choice to protect our fragile egos. Jesus often spoke about God's ability to read our hearts and that we will all be called to account for our choices in life. In other words, there are no secrets. All things are open to God's divine survey. In fact, the whole universe sees us as we really are. And, in judgment, every choice we make will be open to all our friends and family members - shouted, as it were, from the housetops. 

The point in all this is, of course, for each of us to take responsibility for our choices. We each need to determine to be circumspect, responsible citizens of this world and of the kingdom of heaven. 

16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.

This text is often jettisoned by Bible students who prefer - choose - to value the Law and the Prophets over the gospel of grace. What would be the motivation for that choice, despite the clarity of Jesus' teachings about the kingdom? On the other hand, Jesus taught that not even one stroke of a letter of the Law is to fail. How can both be true? Aren't we supposed to 'choose' the latter or the former? Didn't the apostle Paul raise this very question in his letter to the Galatians saying, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law" (Gal 3:13).

This is an example of both/and. We live under grace and no longer under the Law, yet we value the Law and the Prophets for pointing us to the covenant of grace. Notice how Paul brings the two into one. "The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor" (Gal 3:24,25). 

In other words, as an adult I no longer live under my parent's rules, yet I forever value my parents for preparing me to live as an adult. I've chosen to be an adult. I've chosen my own way to live as an adult. Yet, I still value what my parents have done to get me to this place. If I chose to remain under my parents, my choice would not only be unfortunate, but by choosing to remain under their authority I simultaneously destroy their authority. Again, from Paul's letter to the Galatians, he wrote: "Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh" (Gal 3:3).


18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.

Luke extracted this verse from Matthew's rendition of the sermon on the mount (Mt 5:32). It is a fascinating juxtaposition of texts. The previous verses indicated that we must move beyond the Law and begin to live by faith. The Law must remain precious to us, in that it has served us as a tutor to lead us to the Christ in whom we now follow by faith. Yet, here, Luke lays out the Law as if it should continue to speak to us. How can that be? "For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse" (Gal 3:10).

Luke has been presenting the need to make a choice, yet here he appears to be speaking out of two sides of his mouth. How can anyone live both under grace through faith and under the Law? "The Law is not of faith" (Gal 3:12). Are we or are we not still obligated to the Law? Do we still need the 'tutor' even though we live by faith and walk in the Spirit?

It seems that Luke has placed verse 18 immediately after verse 17 to make an important point. Though we now live by faith and, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians (6:12), "all things are permissible", he also said that not all things edify. Though we no longer live by conforming our flesh to a set of written laws, the Spirit never leads us to do harm to another person. Freedom in Christ is not license to harm others. Adultery no longer exists as a law-based prohibition, but when a person abandons his/her spouse for another, we have harmed our spouse (noting that there are justifiable exceptions).  

The point is, don't live by law. Rather, live by the calling to love one another. "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom 13:10). 

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with rules, unless we live by them rather than by love. Rules are useful in that they help shape our sense of what it means to love. Once we become a lover of others, we no longer need to check the list of rules, we just love. Yet, how would we know love had there not been a law that led us to love?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Luke 16:1-9 Acting Shrewdly

1 Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 

You don't get this story? Neither did I. But, let's not jettison it simply because it doesn't read well. Let's dig deeper instead. 

I can't help but wonder how Donald Trump would have handled this scenario on his program, The Apprentice? Would he have immediately fired the manager and not looked back, or would he have commended him for his shrewd plan? 

All that aside, what was Jesus' point in this rather odd story? Is the point that we all must eventually give an account for our behaviors during this life? Is this a warning against all who cheat their employer (or the IRS)? Or, maybe it is a slam against bosses who jump to conclusion based on hearsay?

What say you?

3 The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’ 

Do you get depressed or hysterical, become paralyzed or motivated, when confronted with the threat of losing your source of income? Or, do you immediately hatch a plan to succeed along a new avenue? In other words, does a challenge elicit productive thinking or stinking thinking? When confronted by change do you rise to the occasion or retreat in fear?  Is conflict viewed as an growth opportunity or as a fatal blow?

Life is what it is, but do you choose to make the best of it - lemonade from lemons - or do you surrender to whining about your bad luck? Should you sit back and pray or pray as you think and act? 

More importantly, are you willing to, and even adept at, reframing whatever circumstances you find yourself in, intentionally leveraging them for spiritual growth - or are you more inclined to translate each difficulty as just another reason to throw the baby out with the bath water and have a pity party?

5 And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 

This man accepted the consequences of his less than stellar performances as a manager. He knew himself well, what he could and could not do, yet focused on his strengths. He effectively made a pro/con list and choose the path that best presented itself. 

Here are the steps. Admit the truth when you fail. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Choose to move forward, believing that there is always a way forward. Accept what you cannot change.  Engage what you can change. Determine to use each failure as a learning experience. Don't blame others for your own failures, but don't permit yourself to wallow in your failures when caught. Become a better person through your failures. Choose a better path forward - keeping spiritual health in mind. 

7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He *said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 

What prompts a person to say, 'let's make a deal'? Usually, they want something in return. This was no exception. As mentioned earlier, the manager was no exception. He was thinking about his future survival. 

On the other side, these people were motivated to accepted a good deal because they owed a great deal. The fact that they might be called upon to help out this manager seemed like only a distant possibility. The manager knew that present reality trumps future possibility. 

How many of us would accept a deal from our bank that promised to cut our debt in half? What if the fine print stated that sometime in the future you may be called upon to do something for the bank and you would be obliged to do it, no questions asked? Would you accept the deal? What if you only owed $100? What if you owed $10,000? Would you accept the deal if you owned $100,000? At what point would the amount forgiven be worth the unknown?  

8 And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. 9 And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.

At first glance, one might wonder why Jesus would have told this story. Here are two other translations that might make these verse a tad clearer.

The Message Bible presents verses 8 and 9 this way:  Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

The Amplified Bible offers this insight in to verse 8 and 9: "And his master commended the unjust manager [not for his misdeeds, but] because he had acted shrewdly [by preparing for his future unemployment]; for the sons of this age [the non-believers] are shrewder in relation to their own kind [that is, to the ways of the secular world] than are the sons of light [the believers]. And I tell you[learn from this], make friends for yourselves [for eternity] by means of the wealth of unrighteousness [that is, use material resources as a way to further the work of God], so that when it runs out, they will welcome you into the eternal dwellings."

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Luke 15:11-32 Unmerited Favor

11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. 

Most of us have used poor judgment at least once in life. And there are, as we all know, consequences to our less than stella choices. 

So, how should the church respond to those of us who have made a foolish decision or a series of bad decisions? How should Christians think of others who have acted immorally, unethically, and even criminally? Which should weigh moe upon our minds - the person or the person's sin? And, what should be our response if and when the 'sinner' repents? Furthermore, what should be our thinking while the person continues to live in sin without repentance?

This parable intentionally follows the parable of the lost sheep and should be interpreted with that context in mind. As you recall, whenever something lost is found, a celebration occurs. Whenever someone who is 'lost' is found, heaven rejoices. The lesson in these previous parables is that the Christian heart never gives up hope for those who are lost. In their heart they are always searching for those who are separated from them. No sacrifice is considered too much, if a lost soul can be reconciled.  

Remember, to repent means to change. Those who do not want to change are the 'lost'. A person can be 'lost' as a member of a church simply by being unwilling to change. To refuse to change is to believe one is perfect just as s/he is. God may treat us as if we are Jesus, but if we receive his grace by faith God then begins the work of transforming us. This transformational process, sanctification, is a life-long work which requires a willingness to constantly change. 

The 'irreligious' (Lk 15:1) bring great joy to heaven when they choose to 'change', but the 'religious' can bring great sadness to heaven when they think they have no need to change (Rev. 3:17).The 'Laodicean' church member is nauseating to heaven (Rev. 3:16).

In this parable, the father's two sons were both 'lost'. The younger one was lost and needed to be found, while the older son was lost among the found. The father loved both of his sons, but rejoiced when the outwardly sinful younger son recognized his error and counted his relationship with his father worth more than any other thing. The older son was in constant proximity to his father, but only valued the 'things' his father gave to him, but not his father. 

In some ways the older son is a type of Lucifer, while the younger son is a type of Adam. Which are we?

14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 

How bad can the consequences of poor judgment become? This parable not only describes what may have happened two millennia ago, but accurately portrays what continues to happen every day in American in the 21st century. Poor judgment lands many people - even from good homes - on the street.

Notice another element to this story. Luck, or better said, bad luck. Often, a bad decision does not punish us with extreme consequences. But sometimes, a lapse in judgment even for a moment, can catapult us into consequences that far exceed our bad decision. Why? Timing. Bad luck. 

In this parable, the young man recklessly spent his entire inheritance AND he happened to do so as a severe famine plagued the land. Unlucky timing. The reverse is also true. Sometimes a good decision is unwittingly made at a lucky moment and circumstances synergistically work together to supercharge that decision into an incredible blessing. And, we have all made a bad decision, but we got away with our bad choice with little to no consequences simply because we were lucky - we were not caught and/or the situation around us kept our bad decision from escalating. 

Yet, here's the good news. No matter how bad the circumstances we find ourselves in - or whether we are in those circumstances because of our own bad decisions - we can often make new decisions. If we are willing to change - repent - we can do something to turn ashes into something beautiful. 

This young man was willing to make a change. He was willing to humble himself and to return home and to accept whatever punishment he deserved. He recalled the character of his father, something he never cared to think about while growing up at home. He realized how wonderfully his father treated even the hired help. He didn't think to assume his former role as son, but a far lesser role. He just wanted to be under the protection of his loving father - even if that meant being a servant in his father's home rather than as a privileged son.

Most folks refuse to make changes until the fear of change presents as far less painful than the pain experienced resting in the status quo. 

20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

The father gave up everything in order to give his son what he suspected his son would most likely squander. In other words, the father gave his son permission to fail - and to fail miserably. Love wants to hold on to those we love, but true love let's go and sets others free. The father gave up his son by giving him the right to choose 'not' to be his son. He did not do this out of dislike for or frustration with his son, but because he 'loved' his son.

Notice how real love applies genuine grace. The father was so glad to see his son returning home that he treated his son as if he had never left. He did not focus on his son's foolish choices or complain about how much money his son had mindlessly lost. The father welcomed his son back into the home requiring nothing but the son's decision to return. This was indeed 'unmerited favor'.

The father died to give all to his son. When the son returned another sacrifice was made. Two deaths and the result was a grand celebration.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 

Say what? 

What the father did was patently unnatural. What the older son did was very natural. But that is the point? 

As followers of Christ we are called and empowered to live in the world with a clearly defined set of values. People are more important than things. People are more important than their different and even wrong behaviors. People ought to be free to do, say, and believe whatever they want - yet mature people realized that though all things are truly permissible, not all things edify. Laws can forbid us from doing things that don't edify, but having the freedom to personally learn this truth is far more convincing. 

Being willing to give someone the freedom to reject you, is love. Being willing to ignore all the wrongs someone has done against you, is grace. Love does not keep a record of wrongs. Love does not operate 'under law'. And love rejoices in the success of others and especially rejoices when another 'get's it' - gets what it means to love and to extend grace.

28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 

The older son made this all about him, which suggests that what he valued was not a relationship with his father, but the things he had access to as the oldest son. The oldest son lived under law. He had a ledger mentality. Everything was viewed according to his rules of fairness. Relationships were secondary to things.

Of course, the oldest son's response is natural. We may talk about how much we value other people in our lives, but as soon as they do something we don't like or say something we don't agree with, we cry foul. This same notion operated among the disciples of Jesus when a woman cracked open expensive perfume to 'anoint' Jesus.

Notice the reasons the oldest son gave for rejecting his younger brother. His brother hadn't assisted his father, had neglected the teachings of his father, had lost his portion of the family wealth, and had slept with prostitutes. He focused on all the 'sinful' behaviors of his brother that made him undeserving of honor.

What the older brother missed in all this was that his younger brother came home. It did not matter what sins he had committed. He was back home. The real problem was that the older brother was home, yet not home. He was 'in the church', but missed the point of being a member of the body of Christ. 

31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

The father made it clear, that all his 'things' belonged to his oldest son, but the most precious thing was his child that had been lost and was now found. A reconciled relationship is of infinite worth and demands a glorious celebration. 

None of our stuff will go with us into eternity, but we sincerely hope that each of the relationships we have formed in this life will continue into the next. Our Christian calling is to the ministry of reconciliation. In order to be reconciled with someone, no past sin can be held up as more important than the person. 

The father permitted his youngest son to turn away. He did not chase him down, but he did wait for him to return. He never lost hope for his son's repentance and return. No amount of financial loss had any weight in the father's thinking, as it clearly had with the oldest son. A person, no matter how faulty, is of infinite value. 

If only we all had the Father's heart for others.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Luke 15:1-10 Under Grace

1 Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. 

This was not something that was considered a 'badge of honor'. Yet for Jesus, this was wonderful. Those who were excluded felt safe being with him. They felt accepted by him. Thus, they were open to listening to him. 

The obvious question is, do social outcasts feel safe hanging out next to us or do they sense repulsion and/or judgment in our expressions and/or body language? Do only those who have a similar lifestyle, educational level, and belief system feel safe around us? Do social outcasts feel accepted by us? 

Should we really expect people to hear us if they don't feel safe around us or accepted by us?  

2 Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them." 

We all tend to grumble when we feel pushed a tad too close to the edge of our comfort zone. Even when folks are not forcing us to think and act as they do, we just don't like those who are different from us, getting too close to us. We like our bubble. We like to believe that the bubble we have chosen is the truth, that it is reality, and we don't like any other realities challenging our preferred reality. To believe that our reality is the only legitimate reality is to believe all others are deceived. Yet the reality is that there are many 'realities' - few, if any, being 100% reality.  

If we spoke out our concealed thoughts, folks might hear us say, 'don't be gay or liberal or Muslim or a hippie anyplace where I will have to encounter you. I pay my taxes and I want my surrounding to fit me, not you. So beat it. Stay out of my world.'

There's certainly nothing wrong with liking the things we like, but we clearly aren't following the way of Christ is we are not mingling with others who are not like us and making them feel safe and accepted when around us. We noted a few chapters back that even this notion can be abused. We can choose to mingle with others, surround ourselves with them, and give abundantly to them, yet not truly 'agape' them. We can do superficially 'good' things for others, but be caustically judgmental in our heart against them.

3 So He told them this parable, saying, 4 "What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.  6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'  

This is certainly the question that needs to be asked in our day as it was in the time of Jesus. First, though, who are the 'lost' today? Are we only talking about those who are not members of our particular faith. Or, do the 'lost' also refer to the homeless, incarcerated, poor, mentally ill, and addicted? Should those whom Jesus referred to as 'lost' include the world's refugees, displaced persons, traumatized veterans, asylum seekers, and illegal aliens?

Whom would you choose to 'carry' home and care for? Whom would your community rejoice or not rejoice over as they are brought into your community?  What are your 'Christian' criteria for determining someone as 'lost' and thus someone you should 'carry' home? Are the 'lost' only those who once were part of our particular 'tribe', but have left? Or, are the 'lost' in this parable any human being who is not experiencing the peace and joy that comes from believing in God?

Do we rejoice when our modern day 'shepherds' bring the 'lost' back into our community? Do we rejoice when a plea is made to care for their needs? Or do we complain that their needs threaten our wants?

7 I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.  

Does this verse qualify the previous verses - defining the 'lost' only as those who have not accepted Christ as their savior? If repentance is the key objective for heaven, is living in sin the operative definition of 'lost'? Who were the 'lost' that Jesus ministered to?

According to the gospels, what are the kinds of actions taken on earth, that elicit joy among the heavenly host? Does heaven shout with pride every time Christians build another church or coalesce behind a particular politician?

What do you think really gets the angels rejoicing in the heavenly realm? Is there a difference between what the OT and the NT portray as glorifying God? If so, has God changed? Or, has God's will for his people changed because humanity has been forever changed since the life of Jesus?

8 "Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?  9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!'  

This is another one of those texts that should not be read legalistically and prescriptively. Christians are not called to throw a party each time we find a lost coin.  How do you discern between a text that is a metaphor illustrating a larger principle and a text that is defining a principle?

What kind of things cause you to rejoice? Are you only thankful when big things happen or do you tend to 'rejoice always' even when the simplest of blessings come your way - such as finding a lost penny?

10 In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Heaven not only rejoices when a suffering person is helped, but when a spiritually lost person enters into a meaningful relationship with God. Jesus cared for anyone who was alienated from the community, whether they became one of his disciples or not. 

In other words, our efforts to help others should not be limited to their spiritual salvation. Rather, we must extend grace to all people and trust the Spirit to empower our acts of genuine love to inspire the hearts of those we care for. Rejection of our religious beliefs should not be cause for refusing to be a good Samaritan.