Sunday, January 29, 2017

Generousity and grace at the gate (Luke 16:14-31)

There is a whoosh and the door to the supermarket opens as if by magic. You head out to the car.. You’d gone and got what you’d needed and yes you had managed to fit in just one or two extras, not essentials but nice to have treats.

Right there in front of you is someone sitting on the pavement with a hand written cardboard sign and hat out in front of them. Not every time but more and more these days… They ask you for spare change…

Property developer, Bob Jones, said recently in a radio interview, it was a disgrace to see people begging in New Zealand, it’s a blight on our society, it shouldn’t be allowed. Another spokesman had said that the homeless and begging problem in the central city here in Auckland was stopping large top end international retail brands setting up shop there, it was a barrier to our ‘increased prosperity’. I think it is a sign of our increased inequality, we want bigger brands and beggars banned. Amazingly the head of the Auckland City Mission agreed with them. It is a blight, it needs real political and social and personal commitment and investment of resources and time, we need to tackle the real social needs of people on the street, with that we could bring real change not just spare change.

On a world scale, how we deal with those in poverty and in need as they come to our gate has been making headlines. We are going to build a wall… … we need to protect what we have…we are pulling back, pulling out…or conversely we’ve opened our boarders how do we absorb all these different people…  A bit closer to home, lets intercept them and put them in detention camps or on isolated pacific atolls. We may not be building a wall… we do rely on a moat, we hope we are too remote…But how we respond to the great tide of human migration and refugees is a pressing issue. Do rich Americans who can afford to pay their way get to jump the queue, that is if a nice enough home in Auckland can be found for them, apparently it’s a problem, while we are told any increase in refugee quotas will just have to wait. 

It is in this environment that Jesus parable of Lazarus and the rich man speaks to us today, even more so because Jesus spoke it to the religious people of his day. People whose public face was that they were God’s righteous ones, God’s blessed ones…but God who sees the heart knew at their core they ‘loved money more’.

We are working our way through the account of Jesus journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel. A journey which takes up a third of the gospel narrative and which focuses on Jesus teaching his disciples what it means to follow him.   In 2017, it’s kind of like we’ve gone splash off the deep end. .. we’ve come back into that journey after the holidays in a section where Jesus is teaching on finances and the Kingdom of God. That’s never comfortable and always challenging.

Last week we looked at Jesus teaching his disciples about finances and the Kingdom of God. He told the parable of the shrewd manager. He told them that all we have is a gift from God’s provision and should be used in a way that honours the giver, using in in this world with a forward vision to our eternal home. He warned them that you can’t serve two masters you will end up hating one and loving the other, you can’t serve God and wealth.

When Jesus teaches his disciples, we need to realize they are not alone the crowd is usually listening and in that crowd were some Pharisees who scorned Jesus for his teaching. They knew Jesus was talking about giving hospitality to people who could not return it, they knew it was a challenge to how they viewed wealth and caring for or not care for the poor in society.

Luke tells us they loved money. Jesus tells them that they were more concerned about external appearances rather than keeping the heart of the law in their hearts. What they value, did not stack up to God’s values. At the heart of the law is love for God shown in loving our neighbour.  They were good at keeping the letter of the law and missed the spirit of the law and prophets. It was shown in how they treated marriage, that if they kept the paper work all legal they could throw away relationships, and they saw people around them, the poor and marginalized as throw away people as well. In the kingdom of God however that is not the case. 

To bring that back to how we use our finances Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. He paints a picture of two people whose lives could not be any different, they live on the opposite sides of social inequality. The Rich man lives in a very luxurious house, the fact that it had a gate says that it was palatial. He wore purple cloth, which in Jesus day was very expensive, an exclusive colour, from one of those top line international brands. Jesus even mentions that his under garment was fine linen. From the skin to the outside he was dressed mighty fine. He ate luxuriously. Lazarus we are told was homeless. We don’t know what clothes he wore, in fact we are told people could see he was covered in sores, he didn’t get much to eat he would have loved the crumbs from the rich mans table. In Israel Dogs were not kept as pets they roamed the street as scavengers, when the food was thrown out,Lazarus is to sick to compete with them for the scraps, they come and lick his sores. The sores and the dogs made Lazarus ritually unclean.  Lazarus and the rich man may have been so far apart in terms of socio-economic status, but Lazarus was laid at the rich man’s gate. The gate of a Jewish man aware of God’s law and call for alms giving and compassion.  

Death is the great leveller and both men die. In the story Lazarus represents the righteous poor, who trust in God despite suffering. Lazarus is taken by the angels to the bosom of Abraham, the way the Pharisees would have thought of the afterlife. The rich man is simply buried. He finds himself in hades. This is the first century Jewish understanding of the afterlife. We could spend a whole sermon looking at what this passage says about life after death. But we see that the rich man’s torment is that he sees and knows that he has not lived a God honouring life. Lazarus we are told is in a place of care and consolation.

The rich man does not seem to have learned much however he is still full of pride. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus, like he is a servant, to give him a glass of water. Abraham replies that the chasm between them is vast and cannot be crossed. The rich man is concerned not for the impoverished but for his brothers. He is concerned about his own people He asks if Lazarus can be sent to warn them to change their ways.  Abraham tells him that this is not possible, they have the law and the prophets and besides even if someone did rise from the dead would they listen and change? Almost as aside here, this passages challenges the idea of spiritualism, of hearing and receiving guidance from the dead.  Death is final. Jesus foreshadows his own resurrection and acknowledging that even when that happens there will still be those who choose to go their own way,who will not listen, who are caught up in selfish wealth and prosperity.

Ok how does this speak to us today.

 I’ve called this message ‘Generosity and grace at the gate’… because in this whole story in life and death there is a wall or a chasm between the two characters the Rich man and Lazarus. After death we see this chasm is permanent and cannot be crossed, but in the first part of this story there is a gate a chance for change, an opening for generosity and grace.

There is a chance for change for the rich man and his brethren.  Remember Jesus is telling this story to people who we are told love money. It is a warning for them to listen to the law and the prophets, to listen to Jesus and the new age of the Kingdom of God, and turn their hearts again to God. In John 10 Jesus say he is the gate for the sheep, a way for them to know and have abundant life knowing and being known by God, to graciously experience the generous over the top love and forgiveness of God.

There is a gate for change for Lazarus because such a love will change our hearts and expresses itself in how we love our neighbour. when we started this journey in Luke 10 Jesus was asked who is my neighbour, and he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the answer was the person in need. On the road side, at our gate. In the image that I chose for this service we see a heart shape made with hands. What is in our heart becomes visible in how we use our hands.

The gate has an impact not just on a personal level but on the public space as well. The city gate was where in people sort Justice in Jesus day. It was where the law and prophets were applied to community life.

When I read this Parable I can’t help but see it as a critique of the trickle down economics that has been part of our western materialistic way of thinking. That if the rich prosper it will have a flow on effect. I think it’s a crummy was of thinking. Lazarus would have loved to eat the crumbs that came from the rich man’s table, but even then he couldn’t because they were being scrapped over.  In the book of Amos in the Old Testament, the prophet was speaking to Israel in a time of prosperity and religious celebration, and says that true religion is to not to make gain from the poor, not simply to have a trickle down, but to open the flood gates and let justice flow like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream. It is about the poor being welcomed in and given hospitality and given a place at the table. That Kingdom of God economics.  

But also in the public square. It reminds us that God is with the poor his heart of the oppressed and deprived. To the original hearers of Jesus parable and to us it would have been odd to hear the poor character have a name while the rich man remained nameless. It increased he effectiveness of the story by personifying Lazarus, and making it possible for us to fit ourselves into the character of the rich man. But theologically it gives dignity to Lazarus, that God would know his name, in a society in which a sign that we’ve made it is everyone know your name, or know who you are talking about by a single name…like with the Aussie open tennis finals this year … Serena v Venus and Rafa v, Rodger. But in God’s kingdom each person, even if they are normally just part of the faceless and nameless masses is important to God.

It also challenges us about where we stand in that public square as well.  I think it is summed up visually in the statue of Jesus, the Homeless beggar and the punch line to Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25  “ you did it for the least you did it for me.” It was rather ironic that when the statue was put up outside a church in North Carolina that the police were called by a passer-by to come and move the homeless person along.   One of the responses to the changing political landscape in the US and around the world has been to articulate what is called the Matthew 25 pledge. It’s an awareness that the church in the west has been guilty of loving money to much, but God’s call is for us to identify and be with the least, the marginalized, poor and powerless. The pledge is that in the face of every political system that is where we are called to stand, “when you did it for the least, you did it for me”.  

The gate is open, Jesus call is to come to him, and receive his generosity and grace, and allow that generosity and grace it flow from our gates, and in our city and nations gates as well.  

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