Reflection: "Well, I'll be Damned!"
This story from Luke’s Gospel - of the rich man and the beggar called Lazarus (no, not the one whom Jesus raised from the dead, but the one who sat outside the gate of the rich man), - can discomfort us, as it has done for every generation since Jesus told it. It’s a warning about the dire danger of how wealth can affect the human personality.
Affluence can desensitise us to the rights and needs of other people. I would suggest that 9 times out of 10, really rich people hardly even notice the poor, and, if they do, it’s probably with a sense of irritation.
When the love of money gets a hold on us, other human beings cease to matter. Most shareholders of big companies don’t know, nor do they want to know, how much human misery occurs just so the company can pay them a handsome dividend every 6 to 12 months.
How often have you heard about a CEO of a company, who has lost billions of shareholders’ funds, getting a substantial pay rise? Or of politicians voting to increase their wages and entitlements whilst at the same time making cuts in payments to those who can least afford it? All because they want to fix the budget deficit.
Where money and possessions are treated like a god, people don’t seem to matter. The affluent very quickly become desensitised to the suffering of others.
And then, when they finally wake up to themselves, it’s a case of “Well, I’ll be damned.”
In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus is trying to get under our defences and confront us with the disregard we sometimes have for those less fortunate than ourselves.
In it, he uses some of the common imagery of Paradise and Hades - which was current at that time. He takes that well known imagery and uses it to paint a frightening picture of the significance of our disregard for the needy.
You’ll notice from the story, that during his lifetime, the rich man didn’t do anything to harm the sore-covered beggar squatting by his front gate. He didn’t lay a finger on him, nor order him to be moved on. Maybe he would even have thought it was ok for a servant to take waste bread from his table and give some to the beggar.
Whilst he didn’t overtly hurt the beggar - the community had already done that most effectively - he ignored him.
I suppose the rich man was just following the expected social morals of a wealthy man in that time.
This kept others who were lower down the socio-economic scale, ‘in their place’, so to speak.
He was content with things the way they were, as it suited him very well.
Day by day, little by little, the rich man’s comfortable lifestyle had been digging a trench between himself and the have-nots of this world. A trench that widened and deepened into a great gulf - a chasm in the eternal, moral order of things - which nothing was likely to be able to cross in life - and certainly not in death.
Think about that gulf. Obviously, Jesus wants us to think very hard about it when he says: “Between us and you is a great gulf; we cannot pass over to your side, and your side cannot cross over to us.”
Jesus is using a picture of the coming afterlife, to address the present moment.
Jesus is saying: This selfishness is a damnable way to live and it’s damnable right now, not just in the future.
It’s actually self-damnation, as we dig the gulf ourselves and we don’t need any judge or jury to convict us.
We damn ourselves by our attitudes and choices. We damn ourselves by the things we don’t do - just as much as by the things we do. The parable is about self-damnation.
You’ll notice that the focus of the parable is on the rich man, not on the poor man.
On the rich man and, later, on his affluent brothers, who continue to live in a way that damns them.
Who are these brothers and sisters? And their children, and their children’s children? Are they among us today?
You may want to say: “Hey! Wait a moment. We’re not rich. That indictment might apply to people like Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and James Packer, but surely it can’t have anything to do with us.”
Not so fast, O ye of the quick side-step! We may not be rich compared to the top 10% of people in Australia.
But why, when we talk about being poor or rich, do we compare ourselves only with those above us in wealth?
Why not compare ourselves with those below us?
Most of us have a roof over our heads and food on the table at every mealtime, unlike many who are sleeping rough in the streets of Sydney, in third world countries and in refugee camps.
So don’t allow yourself to wriggle out from under the heavy message of this parable. Even though it hurts, even though it raises anxiety, even though we may not find any easy answers, please let this parable confront you.
I’d far prefer that we live with uneasiness and painful self-examination, than settle down into that cushioned abyss-zone of insensitivity - which is the world of the damned.
Did you notice, I wonder, what tough hides the rich have, according to the parable?
When the rich man, trapped in Hades, wants someone to warn his 5 brothers, he looks for a messenger, a lackey, to carry a message to his comfortable brethren.
He asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn them.
Did you get the subtlety? Even in hell, the rich man sees the poor as the servant of the rich.
Even from paradise, they’re expected to be at the beck and call of the rich people.
“No way”, says Abraham. “They already have the teaching of Moses and the prophets; that should be enough”
However, rich men are not accustomed to being refused, so the rich man argues: “But if a person came back from the dead, they’d surely repent.”
“Don’t fool yourself,” says Abraham. “Even if someone came back from the dead, they still wouldn’t repent.”
Even the resurrection of Jesus hasn’t changed the attitude of those who are self-satisfied.
The affluent are in their comfort zone, where calls to repent will seem rather peripheral and irrelevant.
They see Jesus as only being for those who are weak or needy.
Paul, in his first letter to his disciple, Timothy, warns him (and us) not so much about the dangers of money itself, but of the dangers of developing a love of money, being arrogant and putting all our hopes in wealth, instead of in God.
He’s telling us that just being rich isn’t the problem, it’s how we treat those less fortunate than us, that’s important.
So where does this parable of Jesus, that we find in Luke’s gospel, meet us? Is it a case of “Well I’ll be damned?”
I won’t presume to answer that question on your behalf.
Nor do I have the desire or intention of berating you, nor condemning anyone.
Believe me; I have enough on my own plate in dealing with my own soul on this matter.
Jesus leaves me wondering: Have I become so insensitive that I now feel good and righteous about giving mere scraps to the poor?
It makes me think about the chasm that can surely open up between me and others less fortunate.
We remember the lonely, the sick, the sad and those who are disheartened. The list goes on.
It warns me that I’m also capable of damning my own soul - whilst feeling very comfortable in it.
It cross-examines my soul, as to whether I am unrepentant, even though I know that Jesus has risen from the dead.
We must widen our horizon and not just tell strangers to be wary, but also tell those we love to be aware of the chasm that they may be building between themselves and God.
And how about you? How are you feeling right now?
If this parable doesn’t throw us all back to grace; where we cling to the mercy of God, and seek renewal, then nothing will. By grace we can be saved from our own damnation and set free to love others as God intended.
That doesn’t mean that we can still be like the rich man during our lifetime and then on Judgement Day, rely on God’s grace and the saving powers of Jesus.
No, we need to examine our attitudes towards those who are less fortunate than we are – and do something about them before we get to stand before Jesus on the day of reckoning and have to say:
“Well, I’ll be damned!”
Imagine this story.
A rich man calls in his business manager to say that he’s heard rumours regarding him being careless with the moneys of the rich man’s estate.
So, the manager thinks to himself, "This doesn’t look good for me - I might get fired over this.
But I can't keep up the mortgage payments if I lose my job and I'm not really the type for manual labour. Begging’s out, so I'd better come up with a very good Plan B.
If I can keep my job, I'll still have a place to sleep each night."
So, he decides to call in his boss's biggest debtors and forgives the debtors a portion of what they owe his boss - in order for them to be personally indebted to him (that is, the manager).
When the rich man finds out about how his scheming manager has reduced the bills of his debtors behind his back, he calls in his dishonest manager and says, "Now, I can see that you’ve done some seriously shrewd thinking on this and even though I was about to fire you, I can see that maybe what you’ve done will be good for me in the long run."
And as if to amplify the moral of the story from Luke 16, Jesus, says, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."
Hang on a minute, what’s Jesus talking about?
He seems to be praising dishonesty and cheating in this passage, and we know that clashes completely with our understanding of what God wants from his people.
Did we just hear Jesus say dishonest wealth is great and that honour among thieves is a virtue?
Is that really what this parable means?
As often happens in the gospels, Jesus draws us in with a story and then turns everything upside down – just to make his point even more strongly.
He often told stories about what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like, but here, he’s telling us what the world is like and how we need to be wise and not naïve.
We’re expecting the dishonest steward to be in big trouble for writing down the bosses’ debts, but it may well have been that the rich man was actually trying to extort more than what was originally borrowed, and so the manager was just asking the people to pay what they really owed.
In biblical times, it wasn’t uncommon for powerful men, who would have held a monopoly on resources, to manipulate their books to make it appear as though their debtors owed more than they actually did.
In order for a wealthy businessman to pad his pockets for an extra profit here or there, he would need a business manager who was less than scrupulous, too.
So, the manager may have been knowingly padding the books for his boss, and, of course, with all that padding going on, a less-than-honest steward, of your less-than-honest business owner, might have been inclined to make a nice little padded landing for himself as well.
The key point is that he foresaw what was coming, and he used his position, and the possessions under his stewardship, to build good relationships for the future.
So, I guess we could say that he was actually being a bit more shrewd - than dishonest.
This is exactly what the dynamics of this story is all about.
We have a shady guy, working for a dishonest businessman, so when the scheming rich man suspects his business manager might be more of a scoundrel than even he bargained for, he gives the man a chance to prove himself.
The steward sees this as a battle he's not likely to win, so he decides to out-scheme a schemer by pulling out the book of debtors and making some calls.
He rings up the first guy and says, "How much does my boss say you owe him?"
To which the man replies, "A hundred jugs of olive oil."
"Well, if he says it's a hundred, it's probably more like fifty, so pay that and consider yourself even with my boss."
He does the same thing with the next debtor.
When the wealthy landowner discovers that he has been out-gamed by a gamer - the man he was about to fire - the rich man had to begrudgingly respect the shrewd steward for it.
After all, his coffers are now full, his accounts receivable are at zero and his customers are happy, because they got a discount and the rich man's clients have now bonded to his manager - the very guy he hired to be shrewd in business, turns out to be even shrewder than he thought.
At the end of the day, this guy’s worth keeping, the perfect type to run this type of operation, somebody who is both a "dishonest steward" and a "shrewd manager" at the same time.
But why does that earn such high praise from Jesus?
Well, actually, he doesn’t. As Jesus points out, none of this earthly wealth matters anyway.
How much money we have, means nothing to God - it’s how we conduct ourselves around money that’s important.
Jesus says, "No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth."
Perhaps the Parable of the Dishonestly Shrewd Manager really is really just an entertaining story, with a surprise ending and a great moral – and that shouldn't surprise us, because Jesus was a great storyteller and he could certainly captivate a crowd.
The main thrust of this parable is actually quite clear: “People of faith, look ahead - be far sighted.“
Do we know where we’re heading, or what lies in front of us? If we have any inkling at all, the only smart thing to do is to get ready for whatever lies ahead - and that includes in the spiritual dimension, not just the worldly one.
Be as astute about the practice of your faith, just as the amoral manager was about the dealings he had with others.
In particular, astutely use whatever worldly possessions you have for the glory of God, in the same astute manner as the unscrupulous manager did for himself.
Our future is the Kingdom of God and that means serving Christ in all of the manifold activities of life.
It’s about loving our neighbours and even our enemies, living the eternal life, the boundless life, here and now, for that is the destiny to which we’re turned, tuned and committed.
As Jesus went on to say, money itself isn’t bad, but make sure that it serves your true purpose and destiny.
Don’t despise money, but use it for the glory of God.
Jesus seems to be saying to us: “Open your eyes and see where you are in the world, being aware of what lies ahead. Be as frank with yourself and as clear headed as those astute operators in the secular world.”
But we can’t let these thoughts become our master, for God is our only true master and we have to remain true to him and the lives he’s fashioned for us.
So we can see that for a lot of our lives, we’re like the unjust stewards from this story.
We’re rightly counted among the unjust, the unrighteous, the unprofitable, and yes, at times the amoral!
We might think that if God really doesn’t commend this kind of behaviour, then there’s not much hope for us.
That is, if we believe that we’re no better than them.
If the God of Jesus doesn’t see in us something worthy of his affirmation, then we might as well surrender all hope, cease coming to church and forever give up gathering at the Lord’s Table.
But, and it’s a wonderful “but” this time, God does think there is something worthwhile in us and we must never give up. Instead, we must keep showing him that we are trying to follow his ways.
Only then can we come to his table, eat and drink and be thankful.
Remember - we can’t serve 2 masters, so make sure that you choose wisely. Use the gifts that God has given you to benefit others, not for your own pleasures.
Jesus tells us to be wise with the little things and then we will be trusted with the big things. We have to act with integrity, as we don’t want to end up like the dishonest manager, only seeking to line our own pockets.
I’ll leave it up to you, now, to search you own hearts and see where you can improve your life in this regard - to further the kingdom that God has given us right here in this world.
Reflection: "Lost and Found"
Most of us men find it very difficult to admit that we’re ever lost – often we even find it difficult to check the street directory or map!
Maybe it’s a hangover from our past as the hunter/gatherers for the family - who knows?
Most of us will only admit to being “temporarily geographically challenged”, but never lost.
The humble GPS (or Global Positioning Satellite system) has been a great boon to us when we’re out and about in the car – especially in a strange city.
Have you ever been in the situation where you’re in an area that you don’t know – and have no GPS or street directory. Eventually you have to admit that you’re lost and ask someone for directions to your destination.
Jesus specialised in finding the lost - those who knew they were lost – as well as those who did not.
In each of the four Gospels, we encounter a Jesus who has a burning compassion for those people who were relegated to the fringes of respectable community life.
He reached out to what one preacher has called ‘the least, the last and the lost’.
The ‘least’: like children, or the mentally ill, or the woman under a taboo, who dared to touch the hem of his robes.
The ‘last’: like the crippled man by the pool of Bethesda, or the man living naked among the tombs; or the lonely woman by the well.
The ‘lost’: like the despised tax collectors, or prostitutes, the bewildered Nicodemus, or the rich young man who went sadly away having been told that he had to give his fortune away to be able to enter the Kingdom of God.
The God of the Gospels loves the least, the last and the lost.
These are the special focus for the ministry of Jesus.
Nothing gave Jesus more joy than seeing losers recover their dignity as the children of God.
The religious leaders were grumbling about how Jesus welcomed sinners and even ate with them, so he told them three stories, or parables.
The first one is about a lost sheep, the second about a lost coin and then one about a lost son.
This week, we’re going to look at the first two.
In the stories we read in Luke about the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus was trying to help them understand that God loves everyone, even those who seem most lost; whose behaviour God would never approve of – the sinners.
God reaches out to us when we’ve lost our way.
Unfortunately, most of us are too stubborn to ask for, or accept, his help.
Jesus tells us that God puts special effort into drawing us back into the circle of his love.
But Jesus also says that those of us who are so sure that we’re not lost, may be the very ones who are the most lost.
We think that we’re the good guys and look disapprovingly at those struggling on the outside.
How wrong we can be!
Being lost means that we’ve travelled far from home, from God’s house of welcoming love, and we don’t quite know how to get back there.
Many of us are too proud to admit to ourselves, or to others, that we’re struggling to find our way; some of us don’t even check the directory God has given us - the Bible.
To be lost isn’t much fun. Were you ever lost as a child? Or did you ever lose a child?
Lynne and I lost our son when he was 2 years old.
We were staying at the house of an uncle and aunt in Brisbane, were comforted that the yard was fully fenced and as an extra precaution, we even tied a rope around the wooden gate and gate-post to secure it.
Some time later, we noticed that Matt wasn’t with his sisters and we started to search for him.
We searched the grounds – still no luck - even checking the gate, only to see that it was still tied to the post.
After we’d looked everywhere two or three times, we eventually went out into the street and there, two blocks from home, was Matt – safe in the arms of a grandmotherly figure. “I knew you’d come to find him” she said.
It turned out that he’d undone the rope, gone out the gate and then done it up again.
I can assure you that being lost, or looking for someone who is lost, can be a bewildering, frightening and awfully lonely time - and to be found is an incredible joy.
Such is the joy that Jesus is emphasising in the parables of the one sheep and the one coin - that were lost but were later found.
Joy, not only on earth but in heaven, is the point he is making and Luke’s Gospel offers us again those famous words:
Come, rejoice with me for I have found the sheep which was lost.
Now most graziers will tell us that one lost sheep is not really a newsworthy event in Australia.
They number 1,000, or 5,000 or even 10,000 head on most properties and they’re mustered by dogs that are directed by the men on trail bikes.
But in biblical times it could not have been more different.
Small flocks, often only 20-30 head and each sheep had a name.
Each shepherd lived seven days a week with his flock and to him, one lost sheep was a significant event.
The shepherd would herd the rest of the flock into safety and then set out to look for the missing one.
In this parable of Jesus, one is missing from a very large flock of 100 sheep.
This fellow had sheep to spare! Yet the shepherd still goes off searching for the wanderer until it is found, returning home with it on his shoulders.
So precious was the one sheep, that he decided to throw a party.
Just think of that - a party in the honour of one recovered sheep!
In the same vein, one lost coin is not really a newsworthy event, either.
Have you noticed how our silly little Aussie two dollar coins seem to have a highly developed aptitude for getting lost around the house?
When one goes missing from the pile on the table, I might look for it briefly, but if it doesn’t turn up easily, I will probably just forget about it.
Let it stay in the dust under the fridge or the sideboard, or wherever; it’ll no doubt turn up some day – probably when I’m not looking for it.
Yet in the story in Luke’s Gospel, the woman immediately lights a lamp and goes searching.
She doesn’t give up until she has that solitary coin held tightly in her hand.
Then she proceeds to throw a party in honour of the recovered coin.
Come rejoice with me for I have found the coin which was lost.
We see that God is like that shepherd, or that woman, says Jesus.
There is more joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents, than over ninety nine righteous people who need no repentance.
When we’re ready to admit that we’re struggling to find our way, Jesus will join us on our journey, if we ask him, but he’ll also enlist us to carry out the task of reaching out to others who are also struggling to find their way.
This is an ongoing process, and you don’t have to be a child, or a sheep, to be lost.
We’re all sinners and we all need a little help along the way.
Do you think that we’re all a bit lost and need to ask for help from Jesus?
Maybe then we can join in the task of finding the lost souls in the Kingdom
Search your souls, talk it over with God, and I pray that your answer will be “Yes!”
Reflection: "The Potter and the Clay"
This week, we’re going on a bit of a history journey and then see where it leads us to in this day and age.
The prophet Jeremiah began his ministry in Jerusalem around 627 BC, under the Judean King Josiah, who was known as a Godly man.
Josiah had already set about reforming the evils brought about by the earlier King Manasseh and he lived to witness the final years of Jerusalem, before it fell to the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar, when it was sacked and burned in 597 BC.
Jeremiah, as a priest and prophet, always claimed that God’s words were spoken though him (for those trivia buffs amongst you, the book of Jeremiah has the most words of any book in the Bible) and his voluminous writings indicate that the reforms by Josiah had not succeeded, because Jeremiah‘s preaching continually calls the people back to faithful worship of God.
His prophesies tell of the impending fall of Jerusalem with all its horrific implications - but the people refused to believe him, because they thought that Jerusalem would always be safe, as Isaiah had told them, 110 years earlier.
After 598 BC, Jeremiah suffered personally, as his prophesies became more insistent regarding the destruction of Jerusalem.
He even prophesied that King Jehoiakim would be killed.
Some of the people decided to flee Egypt before the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar and Jeremiah was taken with them, against his will.
He ended up prophesying in exile for 70 years.
Most of his messages to the people were of judgement, that were to be brought on them, both short and long term.
We see that he obviously loved the people of Israel/Judah, as he prayed for them even when God told him not to.
Three of the chapters in the book of Jeremiah (18, 19 & 20) are based around the lessons the Lord taught him in the potter’s house - occurring in 605BC (around the middle of his ministry) - and hence his references to clay in this week’s reading from Ch. 18.
Potter’s wheels had been around for approximately 2,500 years and consisted of two round stones on a vertical, timber axis.
The potter turned the lower wheel with his feet and placed a lump of clay on the upper wheel.
Using this device, he formed some sort of vessel (eg. a pot, bowl, etc.) with his moist hands as the wheels turned.
Great skill was required by the potter, because the wheel had little momentum on its own and the vessels were hard to form into something useful and beautiful.
Just as it is today, if the vessel being created becomes distorted during the turning process, then the potter would have to collapse the clay back into a lump, before starting over again.
Note that if the vessel was misshapen, or “ruined”, as mentioned in v.4, it was not because of the skill of the potter.
We see from the reading that that “clay” is both symbolic of nations (such as Israel/Judah and maybe even ours, today) and individuals.
We, like those in Israel/Judah, are in a specific covenantal relationship with God, so if we get misshapen and go off the rails, who do you think it is that has to repent to allow the individual or church to be re-formed?
Is it us, or God (the potter)?
Obviously it’s us!
We must repent and submit to God to allow us to be reformed.
The symbolism of the potter speaks of both God's sovereignty as the creator and the people's freedom to choose a path for their lives.
It’s a paradox that Israel/Judah had the freedom to live in disobedience, whilst also having the choice to repent, thus allowing it to return to a position of knowing God's eternal loving compassion.
God is always willing to discontinue punishment for our poor behaviour, however it needs us to change our ways.
The Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 139 that God knew us before we were even born (thus reinforcing the “moulding of the clay” analogy) and is with us through all facets of our lives – there’s nowhere we can hide from God!
If the vessel with is proven to be flawed, then the potter needs to rework the clay.
And thus it was with Israel/Judah - the clay (ie. the people) were frustrating God's purpose for them.
Clay has no choice, but the people of Jerusalem did have a choice, as the call to return (repent) is offered in v.11.
The stubborn voice of Israel/Judah in v.12 makes it very plain that it’s a deliberate choice by the people to refuse God’s offer, when they say “It’s no use! We’ll follow our own plans and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our own will”.
God has formed “clay” people like us to be perfect, before we are “fired” (ie. tested on the judgement day) and, even we stray, he still has a chance to reshape us, should we be willing to repent of our evil ways.
Do you think that any of the prophesies of Jeremiah apply to us as individuals, or were they just supposed to apply to nations as a whole?
I see that God's dealing with the nation of Israel/Judah is a foretaste of how God will deal with individual Christians and congregations – ie. the whole "people of God".
We are constantly asked to examine the quality of our vessels and whether we need to be reshaped by God, so that we can become truly useful in God’s Kingdom.
God has a mission to accomplish on earth and he employs nations and people like us in service to that mission.
Yes, people are free to choose whether to be employed (or even be employable), but God’s desire is for us as individuals to repent of our evil ways and re-turn towards the beauty of God's Kingdom on earth.
God is active in the formation of all people and is a sovereign mission director, deciding who should be with him in the Kingdom.
For example, note how advantageous it is for the potter to recognize the unsuitability of the vessel before the clay is fired and glazed.
Up to that point, all that’s been lost is the potter's time and patience, but after firing and glazing the vessel cannot be altered.
If it’s not right before it’s fired, it’s useless afterwards and so it is with us.
As the church in Lane Cove, are we listening to God and being shaped as he desires?
Have our vessels become misshapen by the way we live our lives and are we therefore in need of smooshing down like bad clay and letting God start again with us?
Maybe we all need to work harder on ensuring that we don’t get misshapen in the first place.
To do that, it’s our job to work out how we can work better towards being God’s beautiful pots in his Kingdom.
It requires constant referral back to the potter’s hands and ensuring that we avoid activities that will misshape us.
When we pray we should be checking in with the potter to ensure that our vessel is still pleasing to him.
I pray that your vessel will remain pure so that on the day of firing it stands strong and tall and takes its rightful place in the heavenly realm.