Saturday, October 20, 2007

Persistent Prayers

Persistent Prayers1

Robert J. Elder, Interm Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Luke 18:1-8
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time: October 21, 2007

When the heart goes out of a thing, it means for most of us that we have lost the sense of why we are doing something; going through the motions, putting one foot in front of the other, living from day to bleary day, but not at all sure why. Big disappointments often lead to this kind of feeling for most of us. The expression we may use is something like “my heart just isn’t in it.”

We’ve seen this happen with athletes when it’s the fourth quarter, they’re behind 42 to 7, there are 6 minutes left, and the stands are emptying of all but the most masochistic supporters and sadistic opponents. For the players on the losing side, their hearts just aren’t in it any more. They’re losers. Maybe not in any ultimate sense or for all time, but that day, for that game, they are losers, and it can feel as though all six letters of that word have been capitalized and emblazoned across their jerseys. The next 6 minutes can seem like a whole season. The other team has their fourth string in the game to give them some experience, but the losing team has to keep the best players they’ve got in there to avoid further embarrassment on the scoreboard. It’s not much fun. Life lacks its purpose when we’re in this kind of shape. Losers losing until they have lost heart, lost hope, lost the game. Ugh. Who needs it?

When Jesus counseled his disciples not to lose heart, he had just finished telling them that days were coming that would be hard for them, but that ultimately, the Son of Man would be revealed, their hope would have a source they could rely on. When they wanted to know when this would all happen, he said he couldn’t tell them. Anyone who has waited a long time for something can understand how hard the waiting becomes the longer it goes on. Jesus knew that the church could become disheartened while waiting for the kingdom of God to reveal itself in the world. He knew that lots of things that believers do and which believers stand for would make them look like first class losers in the eyes of the world until they were vindicated by the coming of Christ. And that’s about the very last thing we want to be: losers. “Don’t lose heart,” he said.

Think of all the effort we spend covering our losses, putting our best, most winning face forward to the world, think of the anxiety we feel inside over the multiple losses that any person faces in life. Yet people masquerade as winners for each other, promoting images of ourselves that we are the one exception in the history of humanity that will be a life-long winner, come what may. Think of the many ways life can deal us a losing hand: failed business venture, fragmented family, unsuccessful try-out, botched exam, egg yolk on your necktie which you don’t see until the interview is over, lipstick stains on your teeth for the portrait that’s going in your club’s magazine, in these and hundreds of other ways, we confront evidence that tells us we are often losers, and we work awfully hard to get around the fact, to get by, to fool others and ourselves that winning is all we do.

To help us understand that, losers that we are, we shouldn’t lose heart, Jesus told a story. It seems there was a widow — unlike today, that was a first century image of a 24-carat loser — who refused to do what losers are supposed to do, just shut up and disappear and quit reminding the rest of the world that we will one day be losers too. Maybe a better image of a loser for our time would be a homeless street person. Now there’s someone that most folks hope will just disappear. But the loser of Jesus’ parable wouldn’t just disappear. No, this loser parades her losses down to the city hall and demands justice from a judge who has seen every street person in town re-cycling through his courtroom day after day: one for vagrancy, one for petty shoplifting, another for sleeping in the park, another for using the shrubs of a nearby church for his toilet. This judge is sick and tired of seeing people who are sick and tired. The last thing he has in his mind when another street person comes before him is to grant anything resembling justice. Mainly, he wants this loser out of his sight as soon as possible so he can wheel his business limousine toward his house in the suburbs.

But here comes this homeless wretch with some sob story about losing her knapsack when some other street urchin lifted it. They have the other fellow in hand, and this one claims she can prove that this other wretch stole her knapsack, but no one will listen, not the police, not the other folks on the street. She wants the judge to get her handful of belongings back for her. The judge, bleary after an eight hour day of foul-smelling people with even fouler-smelling breath approaching the bench in endless foul-smelling succession to receive sentences, doesn’t much care whether these two A-1 losers live or die tonight. He cares much less whether one or the other takes possession of some nasty-looking bag filled with old soda cans, a book, some unmentionably-dirty items of clothing, and one pair of clean socks. The judge, along with all the other members of his service club, is one of life’s certifiable winners, and when these losers collect in his courtroom every day it brings him down. How can he keep up his happy attitude toward life when he has to face these cretins all week? When will he get another crack at that district court opening where he can dispense some real justice? When will he be able to trade up to the 2008 model car. When will he be invited to join another club for winners?

But the continued whining of his present complainant brings him back to his present responsibility. The homeless woman who has been done out of her backpack is whining on and on until finally the judge has heard all he cares to hear in one day and he brings his gavel down, announcing his decision that the knapsack thief must return the goods to their rightful owner immediately, case closed. Just as quick as that he is out the door, flinging his robe over the chair in his chambers and he is off toward home and the gin and tonic that awaits him there.

There always seem to be winners and losers in life, but Jesus’ parable reminds us that, in the end, there really are only losers by the world’s standards. The winner-take-all mentality of our world is as phony as a seven dollar bill. We all wind up old or dead, often both, each of which equates in our culture with losing out. I think I first realized that though I am not dead, I am getting older, when I heard an old Steppenwolf rock and roll tune — that in my college years I associated with road motorcycles — being used in an ad to sell full-sized sedans to aging baby boomers. How tame it seems my generation has become, using the old songs of rebellion to sell each other the symbols of the status quo! Increasingly, the people in prime time TV ads look like youngsters to me. Increasingly, as we age, we are relegated more and more to the marketing sidelines while advertising continues to pump messages to the 20-30 something set. Advertising I see suggests that, by the standards of our popular culture, getting older means losing out, and dying means being lost.

Jesus said, don’t lose heart. We have run away from losing, but when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth, because he will have brought it. How? By becoming the ultimate loser: tried, convicted, and executed like the most common of criminals, this loser was raised from the dead. If God could turn that story of the loser’s death of Jesus around by the power of the resurrection, how much more can he rescue our own losing?

The Son of Man found faith on earth because he brought it, he lived it, he preached it, he even died for it, and he was vindicated by it.

Knowing this, how then shall we live? Knowing this, we have to see that God has taken himself out of the judging business. Losers that we are, lost in the middle of a life we cannot ultimately win — for one day we will all be required to surrender it, to lose it — we come to discover in the end that the last thing we will know is that losers or not, God’s final word on the matter is grace. God grants justice to his chosen ones, not because of our fine, winning tradition, but just because that’s the kind of loving Father he is. That’s all. The loving justice of God: we can’t win it. We can only receive it.

It is said that Ted Turner, cable TV’s answer to the Arab Oil cartel, fabulously wealthy and powerful Atlantan, Ted Turner, during the first 17 years of his life, became a Christian and considered entering the ministry and becoming a missionary. Then he watched his sister die an agonizing death from Lupus. He says it took away his faith in God. Lupus is a loser’s death to be sure, because no winner wants to die at all, much less when they are young, even less when there is an accompaniment of such pain. Reared in a religious tradition that valued an image of winning over an image of the unmerited grace of God for the lost, Ted Turner lost his faith, and little wonder. A faith for winners cannot be maintained in the kind of world we live in, not if we care about anyone who winds up on the losing end.

What a loss. What a shame that in his religious formation, no one mentioned to Ted that Christ died, not to save winners, but it rhymes with that. What a shame that the obvious energy of this powerful personality was turned away from the gospel because he couldn’t find in it any way to win. What a shame that he was never told it’s okay to be completely lost because the one who saves us knows just where we are. What a shame that he lost heart, just when he needed it most.

Don’t worry if you feel lost today, don’t lose heart. It means that you are in the very presence of Christ, the one who inspired the hymn-writer to say, “I once was lost, but now am found.” And those whom Jesus finds, he will not lose.

1 I am indebted to Robert Capon and his book, Parables of Grace, (Eerdmans, 1988), for essential
ideas in the backgound of this sermon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Seek the Welfare of the City

Blessings to you this week. Please feel free to leave a comment about this or any of the sermons! — RJE

Seek the Welfare of the City

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: October 14, 2007

Almost 600 years before the birth of Christ, a traumatic series of events overwhelmed the tiny kingdom of Judah. Just over two hundred years before, their kindred tribes to the north in the kingdom of Israel, had been conquered by the Assyrian empire, and the much of the population of the kingdom was taken away from Israel by force, never to return. There were many in the remaining kingdom in the south, in Judea, who thought this demonstrated their superior faithfulness in Jerusalem and in their temple there. For over 200 years there continued to develop this sense of the invincibility of the people of God who worshiped in Jerusalem, demonstrated in the language of Psalm 48:

Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain,
beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
Within its citadels God
has shown himself a sure defense.

As we have heard, so have we seen
in the city of the LORD of hosts,
in the city of our God,
which God establishes forever.

Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
He will be our guide forever.

Then in 597 B.C., Jerusalem itself was conquered by invaders from the emerging empire of Babylon. The unthinkable had happened, the citadels within which God had shown himself a sure defense — as the Psalm declared — lay broken down, the temple ransacked, the king and a group of leaders carried off to Babylon to begin a life of exile there.

Some who remained in Jerusalem had the presumption to read into these events a confirmation that only some in Judah had been subject to God’s judgment, and they were those who had been taken away. There were those in exile in Babylon, now contemplating their disrupted lives who wondered what a people of God should do and be when they are no longer in the land they believed God set aside for them.

It was in response to the erroneous judgment of those remaining self-righteous ones in Jerusalem, and to offer pastoral comfort to those now in Babylon that Jeremiah wrote his letter. Listen for its word: (Read Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7)

I’d like to focus today especially on the last verse of the reading: “ 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.”

Have you ever known an experience of exile? I know of quite a few folks who have had direct experience of being torn from their homes and their homeland, and who one day found themselves making new lives here, in a country of totally different language and custom. And for those of us whose experience has not been so dramatic, think on times when you may have found yourself in an entirely new situation — perhaps a military assignment sent you to a far-off land for an indeterminate amount of time, or it could be that in pursuing an education, you had to go to a far-off city and live among strangers, or when you awoke among the unfamiliar equipment and people of an emergency room in a hospital, or were sent to camp for three weeks as a child, or lost a job, or a spouse, or health itself. Exile comes in many forms. I still remember the day I crossed the Mississippi River on my way to what seemed like exile for 3 years of seminary in New Jersey, and I shed tears of loss thinking of the friends and family I was leaving so far behind. The word of Jeremiah can be addressed to just such experiences.

Seek the welfare of the city...the shalom, the wholeness of the place where you find yourself. The word in the Hebrew Bible here — shalom — means more than peace, more than welfare, it suggests a total sense of well-being. The task of the people of God in any place is to look to the well-being of that place and the people we share a place with.

Now, why would this not come naturally? Anyone who has observed immigrant groups knows the tendency of like-minds and like-cultures to stick together. This is also true of our own personal or self-imposed exile for education, or when we suddenly find ourselves to be the friendless new faces at work. The human inclination is to seek safety, shelter, to stick with our own, not to venture out and risk the distemper of those we neither know nor understand.

Paradise Road, a 1990s film starring Glenn Close, Julianna Marguilies, and Frances McDormand, told the true story of a group of women who were captured by the Japanese near the beginning of World War II and placed in internment camps for the duration of the war. They had to organize their lives to get along together as best they could, despite sharing no common language, all in a situation where there was a chronic shortage of food, space, potable water, toilet facilities. Many among them were highly educated people from Australia, America, Britain, Holland, Germany, China, Indonesia. Some were teachers, physicians, missionaries. These were often people with high ideals who nevertheless found ways to protect private food supplies or bits of comfort. Often, like any of us, when the going got rough, they did not seek the welfare of the city, but their own welfare and that of their own nationality or language group. And who could blame them, who would behave differently amid similar circumstances?

But Jeremiah says that we must seek the welfare of the city, we must look to that place we share in common even with those who are different than and distinct from what we take ourselves to be. If any people should begin to understand this necessity, it should be the American people. And yet even we need frequent reminders — which often go unheeded — that we must seek the welfare of the city, that each of us must seek the welfare of all of us, if we are to have a corporate life together that is worth living.

Why should we do this? One reason is that — in Jeremiah’s words — it is the place...where I have sent you... The exile in which the ancient Jews found themselves was, in the prophetic word of Jeremiah, an act of God. This is a hard thing: “Where I have sent you.” It is one thing to be able to blame our bad luck on our enemies, or even our own lousy decisions, but to say that in some way the exile we suffer has within it some contact with the intention of God, this is a hard saying. Consequently, much of the time lived in such exile inevitably will be spent in sorting out God’s will from our own in relation to the exile experience. If there is a purpose in exile, surely this must be it, that we seek more fervently than ever the will of God for our existence, and turn toward God with greater hope.

Who is this God who sends us into exile and can find us there? It is the God who finds his people enslaved in Egypt and works among them to resolve their bondage. It is the God who joins his people alongside the banks of the river in Babylon and shares their sorrow. In reality, God can be said to have sent the ruling elite of Jerusalem only because he insisted on remaining God, and their unwillingness to turn their lives in his direction took on the inevitable direction which disobedience brings in the end. Reaping the fruits of their own decisions to defy the power of Babylon, God nevertheless promised to go with them into the exile that lay ahead. The hope that resides in this is that while people may turn away from God, God will not turn away from them. God’s will does not erase reality but seeks to transform it.

...for in its welfare you will find your welfare. This is perhaps the hardest thing: to discover that in seeking the welfare even of the one who oppresses us may reside the only road to our own welfare. I think this correlates directly to such things as a willingness to tax ourselves in a society where the welfare of any depends on the welfare of all, where the education of every child is the duty of every adult, where the safety of every neighborhood is the concern of everyone in the city. It is only in the welfare of all in the city that the welfare of anyone in the city can truly be found.

To do this does not mean taking on the values of everyone else, or watering down our own values any more than did the Jews become Babylonians by seeking the welfare of the place where they found themselves. In a generation’s time, they were back in their homeland, the land of promise. And their survival to that point came largely through they willingness to seek the welfare of the city wherein they found themselves.

To take part in any great work, or small, for others beside ourselves, is to say yes to God’s future in the church and the world, even though we may not live to see entirely what that future will be. It is to say yes to future generations of believers who may occupy pews where we now sit and one day will sit no more, even though we will never know who some of those people will be many years from now. It is to say yes to our city, our place, where the word of God can be established through God’s church for generations yet to come.

Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. And I say, “Amen” to that.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

How Much Is Enough?

World Communion Sunday is coming this week for many. Here is a meditation for this day.

How Much Is Enough?
Living by a Faith That’s Incomplete
A Meditation for World Communion Sunday
by Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Luke 17:5-10
27th Sunday in Ordinary time: October 7, 2007

Through stunning words of judgment and a tiny concluding glimpse of distant hope, the prophecy of Amos seemed to set before the people of Israel an impossible task. From the perspective of centuries of wrongdoing and shortcomings, in the depths of a society which had come to celebrate ruthless materialism above their covenants with God, Amos declared the certainty of destruction and devastation unless the people did one thing: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.” I think the people of Amos’ time, like the people of our time, upon receiving such a singular word as their only avenue of hope, might have been tempted to throw up their hands and say, “What chance is there in our rapacious society — in which the rich are devouring the poor — that all the people who profit so from injustice will suddenly return to an ethic of fairness?” The likelihood that this might happen must have seemed as distant to them as it sometimes does to us in our own time.

Almost 800 years later, the disciples heard about the rigorous ethics of the kingdom Jesus was proclaiming and pleaded with him,“Increase our faith!” They were worried about the quantity of their faith, as though such a thing could be measured. They looked at their faith balance and believed they were about to overdraw their account. “Please, Lord, give us another deposit!”

Jesus’ reply redefined the way they — and we — thought about faith. From what he says, faith isn’t so much a quantity as it is a quality of existence. Think of the very next thing Jesus said: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed...” As long as they were going to go around worrying about the relative quantity of their faith, Jesus picked about the smallest thing he could think of. Today, some might say, “If you had faith the size of a fragment of an atom...” Well, what if they did? What then? He went on...

If you had even such a tiny quantity of faith, you could do things that look impossible otherwise, like planting trees in the middle of the ocean. You could make mountains dance, you could fly to Tel Aviv and back in an hour.

Here is the important part about measuring faith this way. In the language Luke used in this gospel, Jesus was using the word “if” in a special way. Even in our language we have two ways of saying “if,” though only one word for it. For instance, were I to say, “If I were King of England,” it’s as though I were adding “...though of course I’m not.” It is a use of the word “if” that asks you to set aside what you know to be true, to accept a false premise, in order to consider another option. “If I were you, and we both know I’m not, but if I were you, I would do such and such.” That is the first way we use “if,” when it expresses a condition that we know to be contrary to the facts.

The second way we use “if,” though, arises from just the opposite condition. This happens when we begin a statement with a conditional phrase such as, “If the Bible is worthy of study...” This expresses a condition according to fact, as though we were saying, “If the Bible is worthy of study, and it is...” It is the second type of conditional clause that Jesus used.

He said, in effect, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, (which you do), you could harvest mulberries from ocean orchards.” In others words, the disciples already had an ample supply of the very resource they were seeking. If we believe in Jesus we already have all the faith we need. Working harder at it might be commendable, but it won’t make us more worthy. How much faith is enough? The amount that brought you here today is enough to make a new person out of you and transform the world in the process.

Tom Long of Princeton Seminary once told a story about a conversation he shared with a man on an airplane flight:
“[The man] told me that he and his wife were the parents of a son, now in his thirties, who was confined to a nursing-care condition for a number of years because of an injury to his brain. ‘We had stopped loving him,’ said my companion. ‘It’s a hard thing to admit, but we had stopped loving him. It’s hard to love someone who never responds. We visited him often, but our feeling for him as a son had begun to die. Until one day we happened to visit our son and discovered a visitor, a stranger, in his room. He turned out to be the pastor of a nearby church whose custom it was to visit all the patients in the nursing home. When we arrived we found him talking to our son — as if our son could understand. Then he read Scripture to our son — as if our son could hear it. Finally he had prayer with our son — as if our son could know that he was praying. My first impulse was to say, ‘You fool, don’t you know about our son?’ But then it dawned on me that, of course he did know. He knew all along. He cared for our son as if our son were whole, because he saw him through the eyes of faith, and he saw him already healed. That pastor renewed in us the capacity to love our son.”
The capacity to love their son hadn’t abandoned them. It still lived in them, tiny as a mustard seed, but it was there.

Mustard seed faith is the faith we already have, which has all the power needed to carry us to this table where Jesus receives and blesses us and empowers us to accomplish great things in his name. Don’t pray for more faith. Pray for the strength to live by the faith you have already been given.

Copyright © 2007 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
Sermons are made available in print and on the web for readers only.
Any further publication or use of sermons must be with written permission of the author.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Two Men Died and Went to Heaven

Two Men Died and Went to Heaven...

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Luke 16:19-31
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time — September 30, 2007

Like thousands of bad office jokes which start with people arriving at the pearly gates only to be interrogated by Saint Peter over some silly entrance test, the story Jesus tells his disciples sounds like a joke waiting for a punch line. Remember the one about the Texan who arrived at the gates of his eternal home and remarked, “I didn’t know heaven would look so much like Texas.” A voice responded, “This isn’t heaven.” Or what about the one in which two elderly ladies sit on a park bench and one turns to the other and says, “I’m getting so old, my friends up in heaven must think I didn’t make it.”

Yes, Jesus’ story starts out like those funny stories with the whiz-bang finish, but the punch line is anything but humorous.

As we think together about Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, I’d like to reflect with you for a moment about charity. Charity is something which most of us hope never to need to receive. We like to control our own destinies, for the most part, and the image of sitting by the curb, banging a tin cup in hopes that sympathy will cause others to toss a few coins our way just does not meet with our ideas about our own independence. I don’t ever want to be in a place in which I will need to receive charity in order to survive. Probably, neither do you.

While the old saying may be “Charity begins at home,” it is a saying that was created precisely because the good we do for each other at home doesn’t feel like charity. Taking care of “our own” is just our first priority, anyone should understand that. When family members help each other out, that’s not charity, that’s just taking care of family.

Isn’t it true that we generally carry around two different kinds of thinking about acts of good will that we do for others?

Good will type #1 would refer to those things we are more than willing to do for family or perhaps even for close friends, the sort of thing that we may do without even thinking about it. It just comes naturally; “After all,” we may say to ourselves, “we are family.” Or “What are friends for?”

Good will type #2 is the standard, tax-deductible contribution we might be willing to make on behalf of “the less fortunate.” We really do live with these two types of giving in our minds, don’t we? Is the second type the “real” meaning behind a word like charity?

I decided to let Webster guide my thinking on this term. I discovered that in my dictionary1 the first definition for charity is:

“The love of God for humanity, or of one person for another.” — Hm...

I hadn’t expected that to occur first. So I read on...

Definition number 2 is “An act of good will or affection.” — Hmm.....
Definition number 3 is “The feeling of good will, benevolence.” — Hmmm.......
Definition number 4 is “The quality of being kind or lenient in judging others.” — HMMM!

Finally, definition number 5 gave me what I would have thought would have placed first or second judging by contemporary usage:

“A giving of money or other help to those in need.”

It turns out that my dictionary took the theological high road in choosing God’s love as the first definition of charity. Reverend Webster! Of course my deskside dictionary was published in 1962...

My own confusion about the types of recipients of our kindnesses is, I think, the very reason behind Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus. This is not a story about the furnishings of heaven, nor is it a post-terrestrial sketch of the importance of Abraham in God’s scheme of salvation and eternity, heaven and hell. It is about the family of faith and who is “in” and who is “out.”

Here is a clue to the meaning behind this story. If Jesus were to have stopped at verse 26, we would have had a story about reversal of fortunes after death, a story not unlike many other stories unearthed in other Eastern Mediterranean cultures from the centuries near the time of Jesus. It is a classic sort of reversal story in every detail:
  • the rich man whose name was probably known to anybody who was anybody when he was alive remains nameless in this story, while poor, forgotten, suffering Lazarus’ name is mentioned no fewer than four times.
  • Lazarus, who must certainly have suffered anonymity in life, is given the red carpet treatment in death, carried to heaven by angels to be with father Abraham; meanwhile the rich man, Jesus declared simply, was buried.
People have always cherished a belief that after death, if not before, there will come some divinely ordained time of reckoning at which those who have behaved unjustly will get their just desserts, while those innocents who have suffered will come to know final vindication. This visceral thirst for evening of the score exists in the stories of many peoples, and is certainly not unique to the teaching of Jesus. So there isn’t much in the way of gospel here through verse 26.

But, as it turns out, Jesus did not stop at verse 26 with Lazarus lounging in the lap of Abraham, father of all Jews, and the rich man burning in the fires of hell. Jesus added a few further details that throw light on our new calling to be disciples, to be the family of faith together.

Do we wonder why the rich man was described as suffering the tortures of the damned? Most of us would answer that it is because of his treatment of Lazarus, and we could be right. But in the story, the rich man doesn’t actually treat Lazarus so badly. He doesn’t go out to his gate every day and beat Lazarus, or tear his cup of gruel from his lips in order to give it to his dogs. He doesn’t set his dogs on him, in fact the dogs seemed to be the only ones who noticed Lazarus. He doesn’t even attempt to run him off from his gated community for loitering around the premises, lowering the value of his property. As far as candidates for hell go, this rich man gives us a pretty poor example of cruelty. Maybe at the maximum, instead of hell he should go to Purgatory for a short while — though Presbyterians don’t actually believe in Purgatory, so maybe he should just go to heck...

His punishment seems much too severe when we think about it, doesn’t it? We could number off a dozen modern despots much more deserving of hell than this fellow, the murderous 20th century tyrants, the Stalins, the Hitlers, the Idi Amins, the Khmer Rouge, the Saddam Husseins, the Osama ben Ladens. The rich man did no murdering, no torturing. No, it seems the worst accusation we could make against this fellow is that he more or less ignored Lazarus. He just took no notice of him, it was as though it didn’t occur to him that Lazarus existed, even though he practically had to trip over him at his front step every day.

Here is a clue to the problem the fictional rich man of Jesus’ story brought on himself. It comes in those verses that Jesus added to what was otherwise a common, traditional story of the time, verses 27 through 31. In these verses the rich man suggests a field trip for Lazarus. He asks father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the torment in store for them — as though Lazarus was still some lower-class servant to be ordered around by people who were his social superiors. It is precisely there that the clue to understanding Jesus’ story lies.

Both Lazarus and the rich man can rightfully call Abraham “father,” since both are Jews, both are numbered among his descendants. And if two people share a common father, it can mean only one thing, can’t it? It means they are brothers or brother and sister or sisters. What the rich man forgot, or never bothered to know, is that he left behind not five brothers, but six. Five were very likely living it up the way the rich man of our story was, but the sixth was languishing in deep pain, right at the doorway to the house, right under his very nose. The rich man made the mistake of thinking that anything he might do for Lazarus would amoun to charity and would simply encourage more rag-tag people to come around looking for a handout. He didn’t realize that Lazarus was family, a fellow child of Abraham, dying, right there in front of him and he never saw him.

The greatest of the world’s cruelties, to this very day, are not those that capture all the headlines, actions of vicious monsters who torture and kill people. The greatest cruelty by far is to find yourself forgotten, cast off, expendable. There are far more millions suffering this fate than will ever die by the sword of Al Qaeda, cruel as it may be.

The nineteenth century Victorian standard of the “deserving poor” was most graphically depicted through Charles Dickens’ many poor but noble characters like Bob Cratchit and his son, Tiny Tim. The undeserving poor, however, were those thieving varmints, like Fagin or Bill Sykes, who preyed on civilized people. The problem with making this distinction is that it is simply unchristian. Think how it would sound if stated by a pastor who claimed he had been called only to minister to the “truly sinful.” Who does that leave out?

We find in this story that Jesus gets our attention by challenging us to decide what kind of people we will be: those who tell stories about rich people and poor people, or those who live stories about people who are brothers and sisters. One of the reasons that our church budgets always contain items for mission beyond our own buildings is that even in addressing our own church programs, we want always to take pains to remember Lazarus at the gate. If Lazarus is my brother, he will not be starving at our church doorstep, but will be in our house, joining us at the Lord’s table. If the people of God are a family of faith, Lazarus will not find himself hustled out the door if he forgot to wear the right clothes or speaks a different language, but will be seated in the sanctuary along with all the other sinners to be fed by the Living Word of God. We have no less authority on this than Moses and the prophets; if we ignore them, not even a savior risen from the dead will be able to thaw our frozen hearts.

Copyright © 2007 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
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